It looks like my original impressions of Ratatouille were right on the money. American animators need to stop, take careful notes on how Pixar makes films and reconsider their own approach to the medium forthwith. Sure, Pixar really isn’t doing anything radically different than, say, Dreamworks, but those small differences are what puts Disney’s last great hope on the proper side of the divide between inspired and hackneyed.
Pixar | 2007 | Directed by Brad Bird
The Iron Giant was Brad Bird’s loving homage to classic sci-fi and ’50s Cold War paranoia; The Incredibles was an affectionate tribute to Silver Age comic books by way of Watchmen. Ratatouille is something completely different, and maybe a little bit disappointing in its predictability: Bird crafting a by-the-numbers contemporary animated feature. It’s the story of your average talking critter who just isn’t like the rest of his kind, who finds himself suddenly thrust into a new situation, who eventually comes into his own and everyone learns to accept him for who he is. Like A Bug’s Life. Or Antz. Or Madagascar. Or Happy Feet. Or… ho hum, everything, really. Seems like a trite premise for a Bird film, so good thing it’s absolutely the most beautiful CG animated movie ever, right?
Or at least, that’s what I’d say if I were a complete moron. I mean, yes, Ratatouille is the most beautiful CG animated movie ever, and yeah, the premise is a bit trite — but it’s the results that matter rather than the concept, and the results are incredible. Of course, this is the Internet, so I’m sure we’ll see raging screeds from horrible people who set out to hate the movie sight unseen (and presumably a lengthy diabtribe by John Kricfalusi about how horrible its animation was — not enough pea green!!). But normal people, the ones who aren’t socially retarded and can appreciate beauty when they see it, will rightly love Ratatouille.
It’s a great movie because of all the things it doesn’t do. It’s full of fuzzy little mammals, and they’re animated gorgeously and have distinct designs… but they’re not especially cute or marketable. The main character, Remy, is scrawny; his brother is obese; his father is lumpy and gnarled. When the rat colony moves together, it’s revoltingly realistic, sickening in the way that only a swarm of rodents or insects can be. I’m sure there are Ratatouille plushes on sale at the Disney store, but I rather suspect the manufacturers were forced to take some liberties with the designs. This movie, unlike, say, Cars, was not created to sell toys. (I would, however, be more than happy to buy a copy of Anyone Can Cook, the book that provides so much of the film’s impetus.)
It’s a movie about rats, living in sewers, foraging for garbage, but there’s not a single fart joke to be found. No scatological humor anywhere, in fact. And even though the setting — modern-day Paris — and the topic — fine cuisine — are ripe for pop culture parodies, the film never rises to the bait. No Iron Chef, no Julia Child, no Emeril references, nothing. Even the one dig at the French is given equal time by a dig at Americans. The humor is classy, and it’s internally consistent; where most animation has degenerated into the likes of Family Guy and Shrek, which can’t actually be enjoyed unless you’re familiar with 40 years worth of TV, movies and music, Ratatouille lets its jokes be about the characters, about the situations. It’s never laugh-out-loud hilarious, employing instead a quieter sort of humor. And while a few celebrities lend their voices to the production, none are cast as animated versions as themselves. There are no fish with Will Smith’s face, no bees that look alarmingly like Jerry Seinfeld. This is a movie that dares to pay Jeneane Garofolo and Sir Ian Holm for their talents, then makes their voices unrecognizable with thick French accents — because it’s their talent that counts, not their celebrity cachet.
It’s almost… it’s almost as though Brad Bird actually respects his audience. Like he remembers that animation doesn’t have to be an uneasy mix of dumbed-down base-level comedy (to keep kids alert) and “witty” quips (to keep their parents from slipping into a coma) and celebrity pandering (to justify those celebrity paychecks). Like he remembers that every part of a good story can be appreciated by anyone, because good storytelling is universal.
In that post from a year ago linked above, I compared the comedy and motion in the Ratatouille trailer to the bygone days of animation, and that’s what makes the final movie so good. It upholds those ideas, the standards of an era before Robin Williams’ big blue Genie sent animation down the path of shallow parody, before the convenience of CG art made animation studios forget that craft and care are more important than technical prowess and toy-ready character designs. Take away the beautiful, luminous 3D visuals and you have a movie that could have been made in Disney’s 1940s heyday, a film that could be one of Hayao Miyazaki’s less crotchety creations.
I can’t help but think that food critic Anton Ego’s story arc is supposed to be representative of the movie at large, that his reaction to Remy’s cooking was intended by Bird as a statement of intent for what he wants this movie to provoke in its viewers. Which is actually pretty cocky of him, when it comes down to it — but acceptable, because he pulled it off. This is a beautiful movie, and in more ways than just its romantic visual depiction of Paris. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, but Ratatouille proves that they could. If only they had the integrity.
So run, little guy, run. Your kind is all but extinct these days. We need you to live, to be an inspiration to the rest of the world.