Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a modest man. Apart from his job as an IRS agent, there's nothing remotely remarkable about him. Certainly, he hears a voice in his head, but this isn't a demonic possession, nor is the voice urging him to commit arson or assassinate the president. Instead it's a rather mundane narration that describes how Harold brushes his teeth, walks to the bus and generally leads a life of quiet desperation. Gradually, however, Harold comes to appreciate that the voice is a very special one indeed: it's the voice of Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous author who's having a little trouble working out how best to kill off her latest creation, Harold Crick.
A clever meditation on the creative process, Stranger Than Fiction (12A) is a tale of art-imitates-life-imitates-art that owes a significant debt to Charlie Kaufman's intertextual classic Adaptation, and it's easily good enough to hold its own in that kind of company. Zach Helm's script seamlessly blends fantasy and reality, with Dustin Hoffman in the pivotal role as a professor of literature to whom both Crick and Eiffel turn to for help. But this is more than a cerebral exercise in metaphysics: investigating the deliberately botched tax returns of free-spirited baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Harold finds himself falling in love with his soulmate alter-ego, and it's the cautious progress of this unlikely but endearing romance that provides the emotional backbone of the story, while also giving Harold a reason to track down and confront the callous Eiffel.
Director Marc Forster ensures that the usually hyperactive Ferrell and Hoffman contribute appropriately subdued performances, allowing the charming tale, deft twists and acerbic humour to distract attention from the increasingly improbable events. An intelligent and challenging modern fairytale? Stranger than fiction, indeed.
The story to Flushed Away (G) is even more improbable that Stranger Than Fiction: a pampered pet rat, Roddy St James (voiced by Hugh Jackman), finds himself lost in the London sewers after being flushed out of his owner's Kensington apartment. Desperate to reclaim his lavish lifestyle, Roddy finds himself embroiled in a dastardly plot hatched by underworld kingpin The Toad (Ian McKellen) to open the floodgates and drown all the resident rats – the most important of whom, from Roddy's point-of-view, is the beautiful, unassuming tugboat pilot Rita (Kate Winslet).
Generated by Aardman Studios, the creators of Wallace and Gromit, Flushed Away combines brilliant animation, superb visuals, a rip-roaring plot and humour that will entertain young and old. The excellent voice cast includes Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis and Jean Reno, the all-important pop-culture references range from Bob the Builder to Kafka's Metamorphosis, and the script bristles with one-liners and quips (about all that's missing is Jimmy Cagney snarling, “You dirty rat!”). A step up from the Wallace and Gromit movies in terms of characterisation, pacing and – most effectively – the range of facial expressions, Flushed Away knocks recent offerings from Pixar and Disney into a plasticine cocked hat.
Stranger Than Fiction ****
Flushed Away ****