Aw, rats

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.

37 thoughts on “Aw, rats

  1. I actually found the storytelling to be a bit burpy and slapdash (that’s probably due to the presence of both inconsistent voice-over narration *and* a dead guy who seems a little tacked-on to the story), but all that aside even I have to admit that the flick is an instant classic,

    And all matters of story and caharcetrs aside, the thing is a technical and creative marvel, in both the animation driving the film’s performances )especially Colette/Linguini/Remy) and the brain-breaking cornacopia of detail on display: Remy’s beating heart, the burns and cuts on the cooking staff’s hands, the light that practically radiants from *within* the food, even down to the unnervingly-realistic way the light reflects off of Remy’s eyes when he skulks about the darkened tunnel next to the Sienne.

    (That said, have you ever heard about Bird’s idea for an “Iron Giant” sequel? Hogarth Hughes in Vietnam, and all kinds of other nastiness. Gotta love that guy.)

  2. I thought that was a joke that one of the Iron Giant storyboard dudes rattled off. But anyway, “storytelling” to me doesn’t mean “narration,” it has to do with the flow of the story, and how true the motives and actions of the characters ring, and how effective the dialogue is. Narration is always kind of annoying to me, but it can’t break a great movie — see also Blade Runner.

  3. When I started reading the first paragraph and “disappointingly in its predictability” part I was getting ready to write a nasty note, but that was immediately deflated when I continued on to the next paragraph =)

    That said, I think you are cheating the film out of some credit by saying that it is great for what it doesn’t do. The film can easily stand on the merits of what it DOES do as well, including exploring the conflict between familial responsibility and the desire to create/individual artistic expression, and French cultural references from Proust (I shed tears of joy at the involuntary memory! How many people who watch the movie will pick up on that? Amazing) to Tati (bit looser, but still there).

    And more than just a statement of intent for the movie, I think it can be applied to what Pixar tries to do on the whole. Sure, they have some failings (I do think Cars has some merits, but it certainly didn’t rise to the level of some of their others- that Disney is forcing a Toy Story 3 only makes me sad, though I am holding out hope), but on the whole they do a damn good job of innovating and constantly challenging themselves. The question is, what will happen now that Disney bought them? I can’t wait to see what Brad Bird has in store for us next.

  4. Oh yeah, narration is just a device in service of storytelling, and I don’t mind it so much myself as long as its relatively consistent throughout a film. It just bugged me a bit in Ratatouille because the narration would drop out completely for 40 minutes at a time and then pop back up unexpectedly, which, yeah, *did* remind me a bit of Blade Runner, amusingly enough.

    I’d really like to see what Jan Pinkava’s version of the flick looked lie, though, if only just to see what Bird had to work with when he rook over the project back in 2005. There’s a stupendously interesting DVD just begging to be made outta Ratatouille, but somehow I doubt there’s gonna be much talk about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans when the movie lands on disc, which makes me a little sad. There’s supposed to be a decent wealth of pre-Jinkava material in the “Art of Ratatouille” book that’s on store shelves now, so I’ll have to check that out sometime soon.

  5. Actually rewatching the original Shrek after the sequel(s) is a pleasant surprise. The first film has moments of real intelligence and sincerity inbetween the low blows at Disney and subversions of fairy-tale tropes. It took the sequels to lose this and become a torrent of slapstick wackiness, pop-culture and tie-in merchandising.

    On a happier note Pixar get two thumbs up by default from me for making a rat movie. Rats are awesome and deserve more respect.

  6. And while we’re on the topic, a bunch of the guys from Pixar have a pretty swell blog over here:

    It’s updated in burps and starts, but there’s some great nugget of info there, along with a bunch of podcasts hosted/starring various members of the Pixar crew (they posted a great hour-long interview with Brad Bird back on Valentine’s Day wherein he reminisces about being tutored by Ward Kimball on the Disney lot back when he was only 14 goddamned years old.)

    Okay, I shaddup now.

  7. The original Shrek was good, but it’s always bothered me for spending its first two acts demonizing Disney tradition and its third act falling right into lockstep with that same parade of clichés.

    I’ve already seen people crowing over the fact that Ratouille’s opening weekend will probably only be about 2/3 what Finding Nemo and The Incredibles brought in. Because clearly that will mean Pixar no longer makes great movies and ha ha their time is past. Revenue uber alles!

  8. Did anyone else burst into a huge smile when Wall E said his name in the trailer? Or laugh during the whole alien abduction short? I wish I could pack so much personality and simple humor into such small spaces.

  9. Hi Gatsu. You’re still a retard. And Kricfalusi has ranted about how garish and boring Pixar’s visuals are, so please die and never post here again.

  10. Pixar has always had an edge when it comes to how they go about voice casting, as opposed to Dreamworks. The latter has indeed almost always relied on cheap celebrity gimmickry to the point of likening the characters they play to themselves. Pixar on the other hand uses the old tried and true method, based on whoever is best for the job. (Props for casting Sarah Vowell as Violet in the Incredibles.)

  11. Would have been nice if we could have seen the moron comments so that we know that it’s an actual moron rather than someone who has a differing opinion. I’m no relativist, but I’m somewhat convinced that someone here thinks that ‘opinion differs from mine’ and ‘is a moron’ is one and the same, and I’d like not to be chewed out for not liking an obscure SNES game that was only released in the US and only game reviewers have heard about. Again.

    Along a similar vein, I guess I’ll just twiddle my thumbs until Ratatouille comes out here.

  12. There need to be more movies like Ratatouille. I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theatre smiling like that.

  13. No, the moron in question has a long history of being a complete jackass and doesn’t seem to get that he’s not welcome here, no matter how many times I ban him. But thanks for the insulting assumptions.

  14. Yep Ratatoille tanked it made 40 mil short of Cars 60 mil opening and with Transformers on the way there is now way it will make money.

  15. Closer to 50 million, actually. Not too shabby, really.

    Just noticed that Will Arnett is part of the cast, which, by definition, makes this movie twice as awesome.

  16. Omar, no. Ratatouille has made 47 million or so already, and the final weekend take has not bee calculated. Plus, the audience for Ratatouille and Transformers is NOT THE SAME. I bet Ratatouille outlasts Transformers in the theaters by a couple weeks at least.

  17. There’s also the word-of-mouth factor — everyone has positive things to say about Ratatouille, but I bet that’s not gonna be the case for Transformers….

  18. I just came back from seeing this movie this evening. The animation was absolutely amazing. You could see how detailed the textures on the pots and pans and the fur on the rats and how the hairs were different from rat to rat looked or how you could make out individual hairs when they got wet, etc. What took my breath away the first time was seeing the Gustau illustration in the cook book move for the first time because its motions were as fluid and natural as all the 3D characters shown in the movie so far. The story was very touching at certain moments though I won’t say whu for the sake of not spoiling them for people who read the comments.

    My boyfriend and I had been afraid the theater would be sold out and we were surprised to see how few people were in the room. However, people did applaud when the movie ended. The last time that happened to me at a movie theater was, regrettably, at the end of Fahrenheit 9/11.

  19. “But thanks for the insulting assumptions.”

    No worries! I live only to serve, and to provide opportunities for last-minute potshots. I was thinking more along the lines of the other commenters being obnoxious, though.

    I hear that Transformers is actually kind of okay; more early Michael Bay than late Michael Bay. I suspect it’s that Bay wasn’t so keen on the robots that did it: he can’t rely on ‘what people want to see’ (which is almost certainly going to be wrong at some point, because it’s so easy to ascribe the success of an idea to the idea itself instead of its context) so he has to make an uneasy compromise between what he thinks needs to be there and the premise. So the premise takes the place of some of the oversimplified bullshit and then there’s that Bay blockbuster magic to fill in the rest.

    This is sight unseen, mind, and I’m sure there’s a fair bit of Bay bullshit there, but not nearly as much as in Bad Boys II.

  20. The reason the book illustration of Gusteau animated as fluidly as the 3D art is because it was 3D art, beautifully and carefully crafted to look hand-illustrated. So much genius in the detail, all the way down the fact that Ego’s typewriter looked like a mechanical skull.

  21. That was a fun Friday night seeing that movie, sitting through the atrocious trailers beforehand aside. I can’t wait for Wall-E now.

    I loved the tiny details, and how they stuck in things like cel-shaded 3D and even a snatch of 2D. Beautiful movie, some of those visuals just made my eyes throb. I feel sorry for whoever animated the rat swarms, haha. I also like how Brad Garrett and John Ratzenberger keep appearing in every single movie and it never seems gratuitous or lame. I loved Garrett in this movie.

    I think Anton Ego’s reaction to Remy’s cooking and the long sequence after it was the best part of the whole movie, or one of the best at least. You don’t see stuff like that in a rated-G animated family film these days, I was surprised by how cerebral it all was. Kudos to Bird for realizing people have brains and keepin’ it smart.

    The 2D end-credits of The Incredibles and now Ratatouille make me think Pixar’s got a big animation itch to scratch, and that’s why they’re retooling things at Disney now.

  22. One of the many insights I got from this book I read called Disneywar was that Pixar was responsible for some of the animation technology that Disney used in their animated features. In addition, John Lassetter was one of Disney’s 2D animators, who was fired after butting heads with management over an earlier version of the technology.

  23. The Philippines got Transformers a week early; why are we getting Ratatouille a month late goddammit?

  24. During the thirty minutes of ads for rock-bottom kids’ entertainment that preceded the film, I had my doubts that my money had been well-spent. But Pixar topped themselves on this one, which I guess means that the theaters can raise the crappiness of the moviegoing experience another few levels before they’ll stop me from paying my annual Pixar tax to them.

    Also, I want to point out how good the soundtrack was. This is one aspect of Pixar’s movies that hasn’t impressed me in the past, but last night I was still jamming to the samba beat of the end credits during the drive home.

  25. Jeneane Garofalo? Talent? Oh my god. Yeah, “The Truth about Cats and Dogs” was such a masterpiece about romantic relationships in the 90’s hardly anyone has forgotten about it.

  26. “Plus, the audience for Ratatouille and Transformers is NOT THE SAME.”

    Well, they’re both at the top of *my* “need to go see” list right at the moment.

    Ok, fine, so I’m not exactly the typical American target audience.

  27. I didn’t mean to say that no one who sees one won’t see the other. What I should have said is the TARGET audience is not the same.

  28. Oh, and just for the record, the Disney store does have big plush rat dolls for sale, so they managed it somehow. The dolls were kinda cute and not very inaccurate, though.

  29. When I first saw the Ratatouille trailer I thought Brad Bird had gone insane. It really didn’t appeal to me because it seemed as though Pixar was moving along the same lines as Dreamworks and giving us Over the Hedge en francais or something, but I guess since I gave Cars a chance, and liked it, Ratatouille deserves one too. (I really don’t like the title though, I feel like I’m at the butt end of a bad pun whenever I see it, which I suppose I am…) Anyway, I read up there that someone was asking about when the 2d nostalgia will kick in and I think it may have already. Apparently Disney is working on a computer animated Rapunzel tale, made to look 2d. I think there’s like a 12 second clip up on Youtube… and I’m too lazy to link it.

  30. What about talking?

    One of my biggest gripes with modern animation is that nobody ever shuts the hell up. You look at the classics, and they weren’t so dialogue-heavy; they knew when to tone down the talking and let the visuals and music carry the day. Sorcerer’s Apprentice doesn’t have a single spoken word in it; neither do Coyote and Roadrunner, Pink Panther, or Tom and Jerry, with a very few exceptions. One Froggy Evening, of course, has the singing frog, but nobody actually speaks, and the other week I watched The Rabbit of Seville again and they don’t even sing for about the last half of it.

    Anyway. All this to say — any quiet moments like that in Ratatouille? Pixar can obviously bring gorgeous visuals to the table; is there any point where the characters shut up and just let those visuals carry the audience for awhile?

  31. Yeah, there’s a few bits like that. Plus the rat’s dialogue sounds like regular squeaking to humans, so there’s no strange back-and-forth witty banter or anything between the two sides. There’s quiet when needed.

  32. As always, the short that precedes the film has no dialogue whatsoever. Other than that, I guess we could hope for another Triplets of Belleville.

  33. I was very surprised at how much this movie relied on subtlety to get its point across. There were several moments where the audience was expected to take from the character’s reactions and/or how the scene was shot in order to determine what was going on. For a movie intended for kids, I thought that was pretty impressive (though I did wonder if kids would get it).

    It wasn’t quite as good as some of Pixar’s other greats. Two of the women I saw it with commented that it was a bit slow in parts – that it seemed to just be going through the typical kids movie motions. And I felt that too, even if the visuals were great. Still, not being as good as Finding Nemo, the Toy Stories, and Incredibles isn’t much of an insult. It was definitely a pleasure to watch, and significantly moreso than the diverting entertainment of Bug’s Life or Monsters Inc.

    I’m still sad that 2D animated films have largely disappeared and the blame for this could be placed on Pixar. But if they keep producing such entertaining films, it is hard to blame them. Plus the French-style 2D animation in the credits was great.

    I’d also like to bitch about the previews, but this post is long enough. But seriously: Bratz the movie? It’s like Mean Girls, but take away the brilliant writing and add in teen movie cliches.

  34. I really doubt Ratatoille is going to make money people, it’s too sophisticated, no garish colors, set pieces or penguins. So yeah it did well for normal movie standards but horrible for PIXAR standards. Which worries me for Brad Bird’s future. It might make a killing on DVD though (Cars did way better on DVD too).

  35. what’s amazing is this is a film that got fired several times for fighting against making horrible redundant animated films in the past. And he’s also known for being vocally against CG and John K hates Brad Bird’s guts, he’s the perfect man to make the most amazing film.

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