Finding Pixar: Ratatouille (2007)

This is the eighth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

One of the challenges of being a hardcore film buff is dealing with people who aren’t.  When you’re inundated with highbrow cinema and have a strong aversion to the garbage that Hollywood so often puts out, it becomes easy to dismiss the people who patronize movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon as idiots and philistines.  Whenever I feel that way I have a simple method of bringing myself back down to earth: I think of what people with other passions must think of me.  I think what music fans must think when they hear that I can’t make head or tails of Radiohead’s post-“OK Computer” output, or what fashionistas think when they see me walking around in three year old T-shirts and jeans, or what “foodies” think when they hear that I regularly eat at Burger King and have never so much as considered trying foie gras.

That last grouping is probably the most apt, as the middle class liberal circles that I frequent seem to have become increasingly obsessed with food in the last decade.  Some of these “foodies” focus on the supposed evils of factory farms and pesticides and the supposed virtues of “organic” ingredients, others take it a step further and talk about the supposed evils of meat itself and the supposed virtues of vegetarianism or veganism, others still ignore all the political elements and simply focus on buying very expensive items in very small portions made of strange ingredients at fancy restaurants.  I’ve never had the patience for any of this; I think the obsession over factory farms is a waste of energy that could otherwise be going to more important liberal causes, I have no affection for animals and hold no guilt about “murdering” them, and I have neither the money nor inclination to hop around between gourmet restaurants.  In do have a base respect for chefs, much as I have respect for anyone who have honed their craft to a fine art, but I have no real desire to pay for their wares.

In spite of my disinterest in fine dining, there’s no doubt that it has struck a chord recently with certain affluent segments of the population. I think Pixar had picked up on this too and incorporated it into their eighth film, Ratatouille, which in many ways seems like an attempt to reconcile with the hipster audience that they may have alienated with their “middle-America” baiting seventh film Cars.  The film also seemed to be a sort of peace offering to the critics, who (probably rightly) believed that they’d sold out and made Cars for the purposes of selling a lot of toy cars.  There was very little potential for merchandising in Ratatouille and the film’s very title seemed like a marketing nightmare, this was a project that seemed to be made specifically for the craft and not for the money.  In turn the critics championed the film whole-heartedly, bestowing upon it a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, some of them even demanding that the film be given an Academy Award nomination and for the first time doing so with a legitimate hope of actually succeeding.

On a more personal level, Ratatouille had significance as the first Pixar film to come out while I was writing amateur reviews for my blog.  I was in the second semester of my freshman year of college when I started writing reviews and 2007 was a great year to be doing so.  The year was littered with great films like There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Zodiac and I was there for all of them, except for one.  Many critics were championing Ratatouille as another great 2007 movie and part of me did feel guilty that there was a major film that I wasn’t able to weigh in on along with the rest of its competition.  The thing is, I didn’t really know if I was in any position to be able to judge Ratatouille.       I knew how to review adult-oriented live-action films quite well, after all I’d seen hundreds if not thousands of comparable films that I could judge them all against, but I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to assess a family movie.  I hadn’t seen Pixar’s other movies and didn’t have any way of placing the work within their oeuvre, nor did I have any way of weighing it against their direct competition from studios like Dreamworks.  As such I found it a lot easier to simply ignore Ratatouille (and WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 for that matter) and pretend it didn’t exist.  Maybe someday in the future I’d have the time to get caught up with Pixar’s movies, but with a full university course load and a full slate of live action films to review, I wasn’t really going to have time for that.

Watching the movie the first thing I noticed was the presence of Brad Bird in the director’s chair once again.  It’s hard to exactly place a finger on what Bird does to elevate the movies that he’s directed, but I guess it comes down to the fact that they just play out a lot more like live action films than Pixar’s other films seem to.  That might be because both this film and The Incredibles have both been set much more firmly in the world of humans than a lot of Pixar’s other films.  Granted, the star of the film is a talking rat, but he spends a lot more time interacting with humans than the fish, bugs, cars, and to some extent monsters and toys who inhabited Pixar’s other films.  You could almost picture someone trying to make this as one of those movies where animated characters interact with live action characters (not that such a film would be advisable).

Specifically this is set in modern Paris, which is brought to life beautifully throughout the movie through excellent “set decoration” and especially through great “cinematography” which makes the film feel a lot more real than other more softly “lit” Pixar movies.  While I praise Bird’s ability to make animated films feel like live action movies, it should be noted that he does take advantage of the medium of animation when necessary and achieves long shots in small corridors during some of the set-pieces that would be extremely hard to achieve in a live action context.  The CGI itself is also a clear improvement over what has come before, especially in the way they animate the food, which looks so good that it almost seems out of place in the somewhat less realistic environment of the rest of the film.

Good as the food looks, Pixar seems to have put just as much effort into making the kitchen environment and staff therein seem as realistic as possible.  I recently read Anthony Bourdain’s tell all autobiography “Kitchen Confidential” (an excellent read that I’d recommend to anyone) and recognized a lot of what Bourdain described on display in the film from the exacting requirements of line cooking to the pressures of a lunch rush to the dubious and possibly criminal backgrounds of many of the kitchen’s staff.  All that said I think there were a few aspects of the French setting that I take issue with, specifically the character’s accents, which were inconsistently applied and often dipped into stereotype.  I understand why they’d avoid giving Remy and his rat brethren an accent, but why does Alfredo Linguini not sound French or at least Italian?  He is presumably speaking French to the people around him is he not?

Speaking of language, I was really pleased when I saw that neither Remy nor any other rats would be able to talk to humans… at least I thought I was.  Talking animals had always been a sore spot between me and animated films and the sight of a rat conversing with a human would seem to be an element that would screech the proceedings to a halt.  The problem is that they needed Remy to communicate with Linguini somehow in order to do his cooking for him, and the solution they came up with was to have the rat sit on the guy’s head and then somehow control him like a puppet by pulling his hair.  What?  Alright I see what they’re doing there, they’re employing cartoon logic.  You know, the kind of logic that allows a coyote to walk off the side of a cliff, look down, try to run in place, and only then fall to the ground and survive with little more than a bump on his head.  The problem is that the rest of the film sets such a (relatively) realistic tone through Bird’s direction that this just seems really out of place and the slapstick antics that come as a result of Remy’s clumsy puppeteering did nothing for me.  It’s at that point that I wish they would have just had the rat talk to the human (it is unrealistic enough that they’re communicating in the first place anyway) and then had Remy give Linguini orders through an earpiece or something, because the solution that they came up with did end up being worse than the initial problem.

The film’s story seems to be a loose riff on The Jazz Singer, another story about a young lower class man with a gift that his highly practical parents do not approve of.  Remy does remain a quite likable character throughout the film, thanks perhaps to a very good voice performance by Patton Oswalt.  I’m not quite as enthusiastic about some of the side characters that Remy’s been surrounded with, particularly Linguini, who wasn’t really as well developed as I would have hoped.  This is after all the second most important character in the whole movie, practically a co-lead, yet all we really get out of him is a lot of awkward stuttering.  He is quite simply a static character, he doesn’t really change much throughout the film and when he does I don’t think it’s particularly well handled.  His romance with the Colette character felt very perfunctory and rushed and his eventual decision to reveal Remy seemed very weak and somewhat contrived.

I was also annoyed by the character of Skinner, the head chef of Gusteau’s restaurant at the beginning of the film, who came off as little more than a spastic jerk throughout the film.  This seemed like a lost opportunity because this could have been a very nuanced villain, after all he’d worked hard for his position at the restaurant only to have it taken away by a kid who happened to be related to Gusteau and a rat with no formal culinary training.  That would have hit close to the heart of the film’s message about the possession of natural talents, but instead they relegate the character to comic relief and depict him as an obsessive moron/sell-out.

And now it looks like I’m going to have to address the character of Anton Ego.  I’d heard about this guy long before I saw the movie (for a while he seemed to be quoted in each and every article about film criticism that was written), and frankly I kind of went in ready to hate him and the role he played in the movie.  Descriptions of Anton Ego made him sound more than a little bit like Farber, the doomed film critic character from M. Night Shyamalan’s horrendous 2006 film Lady in the Water.  The difference of course is that Pixar has almost never really had to deal with negative criticism up to this point (even Cars had more defenders than it deserved) and the character doesn’t feel like the manifestation of sour grapes in the way that Farber does.  I also found Anton’s final epiphany also felt a lot more nuanced than the descriptions I’d heard.

Let’s take a look at his speech point by point:  A. “the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little.”  Is it?  I’d argue that critics live in constant fear of praising something banal only to be ridiculed if this opinion doesn’t follow the wider consensus.  B. “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”  There’s truth to this point, at least to the degree that it’s true of some critics, specifically bad ones.  I for one never enjoy disliking a movie and avoid hyperbolically negative critiques; but there are plenty of people, especially on the internet, for whom this is true.  C. “the bitter truth we critics must face, is that… the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”  On this point I am more or less in agreement, except that it’s sort of a straw man argument.  I don’t think any film critic believes that his 1000 word piece does more for society than a piece of work that likely took years to create.  Similarly I doubt that any reporter thinks their writing is more important than the events that they chronicle, but what would be the importance of news if there was no one there to report on it.  Criticism serves a similar purpose in that it gives us an informed analysis of the film, book, album, artwork, or meal that is being analyzed and establishes its ultimate importance within its field.

But that’s all a big digression, one that had to be made to address an elephant in the room, but a digression none the less.  The real importance of Anton’s speech is his ultimate conclusion about Remy and his cooking: that “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”  That is of course the not-so-subtle message of the whole movie and while I mostly agree with it I also don’t know how relevant that message is.  We do live in a post-Dubuffet world after all, and the idea of a great talent emerging out of humble origins isn’t exactly revelatory, in fact there are many people who are constantly searching for the next Jean-Michel Basquiat, Charles Bukowski, or Tupac Shakur.  I also wish that they would have had a little more time to show Remy developing his skill over a period of time rather than simply showing him reading a cook book.  As it is it Remy’s cooking ability feels practically like a superpower based on Remy’s acute sense of smell and taste.  I’m of the opinion that genius only emerges from a combination of both natural talent and hard work, and to focus so specifically on natural talent would seem to cut off half of the equation.  Still this is a message that holds the film together and it is sort of interesting to see the idea taken to the extreme of seeing a rat becoming a gourmet cook.

I feel like I might be coming off more negative than I am about Ratatouille with all of these complaints.  I should probably make it clear that the problems I have with the film are fairly small ones and I’m not trying to call it a bad film at all, just one that could have been better.  The silver lining is that almost none of my problems with the movies seem to have much of anything to do with the fact that this is a family movie, they’re (mostly) problems that I could have about any film.  That’s probably the film’s greatest accomplishment, it’s one of the least childish children’s films I’ve ever seen and it might just be the best example yet of what everyone said that Pixar was good at: making movies that work just as well for adults as it does for children.  In that sense it is certainly one of their best works, and definitely a sign of even better things to come.

 

The Short Program: Lifted

The promise of a renewed Pixar at the height of its ability is realized right away through an exceptional short that precedes Ratatouille, a science fiction riff called Lifted.  Beginning in a cornfield slightly reminiscent of the setting of For the Birds, this short depicts young and gelatinous alien taking what appears to be a flying saucer driving exam with a larger slime creature watching his every move and taking notes where appropriate.  The young alien boy is trying to show his mastery of a tractor beam by “lifting” a farmer from his house, but he has trouble navigating the cornucopia of switches needed to operate the beam, resulting in a slapstick adventure for the next five minutes.

This short sets a much more ominous tone than usual through its nighttime setting, its realistic character models, and its general presentation including the use of a font for the credits that’s rather reminiscent of the Alien series.  In spite of this tone, this really is a light-hearted piece with a lot of silent visual gags relating to the abductee getting his head bumped by the young alien’s incompetence.  However there is also a degree of heart to the proceedings as the young alien desperately tries to pass his exam and even though he fails he does get to drive home at the end in a reversal that’s vaguely reminiscent of Pixar’s first short, Luxo, Jr.

On top of this, the short continues the trend of improved visual design and technical prowess within its shorts.  In particular, the blue tractor beam here looks excellent against the night sky and in general so does the house and cornfield.  The character design for the abductee also looks very realistic, although that might be because he’s mostly seen in silhouette.  If I have any complaint it’s that the interior of the flying saucer and the design of the aliens in general seem a little silly when compared to the spooky exteriors.  A little bit of the tension was lost whenever it cut to the slime alien fumbling with the humongous control console and I wish they could have made that interior a bit more atmospheric.  Still, this is obviously one of Pixar’s best shorts and unlike One Man Band it manages to end on a reversal that is genuinely awesome.  If nothing else this is more than enough to get me excited to see what Pixar will do with the sci-fi genre when given a feature length canvas on their next film, WALL-E.

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