Friday, August 24, 2007

Ratatouille

A rat with baby-blue fur scampers from the sewer to the shadows and crevices of Paris, France, and the camera follows him from behind. Once inside the walls of Parisian row housing, the rat sprints from house to house, room to room. He is on a quest for food, and we are seeing not just the exotic details of his world (the interior of these walls is surprisingly charming, for all its squalor), but telling details of the human world, too. Most of the latter are shop-worn caricatures of the French, but in Ratatouille they get a laugh because the perspective is fresh and unexpected.

Suddenly the rat stops, the camera sweeps over his shoulder and takes in everything he sees. He has arrived at the kitchen of a once-famous restaurant. It is immediately apparent that this rat is becoming aware of his deepest aspirations. He wants desperately to leave the Rat World and join The Real World. And so, alas, does this movie.

A city, a kitchen, a cook from humble origins who wants to be a star. The previously unseen is abandoned for the familiar. The viewer's heart sinks.

And just how is a movie-lovin' guy supposed to approach a Pixar product? This is the group of people responsible for some of the most spectacular and emotionally resonant American films of the last two decades. Monsters, Inc. is dazzlingly unique and one of my top-ten cinematic faves. Toy Story 1 & 2 were arguably the best original and sequel to hit the silver screens since The Godfather 1 & 2. To watch a Pixar film was to enter a vigorously imagined Other world, populated by recognizably Real people. So the last two Pixar productions fell considerably short of this standard — is that such a crime? They're still more compelling entertainment than, say, Happily N'ever After.

Admitting to viewer dissatisfaction with a Pixar film feels akin to treason — particularly after Ratatouille closes with a formerly-villainous critic lecturing his audience about what a bunch of self-satisfied parasites critics are (lazily feeding like vampires off the lifeblood of artistry, and all that). But here, too, I chafe. This is the second film written and directed by Brad Bird that trumpets the glories of exceptionalism, and while the A Star Is Born narrative has its appeal, it only needs to be repeated once before it wears out its welcome. If you're exceptional, you don't tell — you do.

Cars and Ratatouille both conclude with morals that sound a lot like corporate mission statements: character is more important than victory, and everyone could stand to work at being receptive to the exceptional coming from unexpected sources. Those are fine sentiments for an entertainment giant to ascribe to. I expect John Lasseter and Brad Bird really, truly believe in them. I'm also hoping Pixar takes them seriously enough to once again deliver the truly exceptional.

Post-script: here are some snarky thoughts I had after encountering some post-The Incredibles chatter. In hindsight I think I made a mountain out of a molehill — "too ordinary" "not ordinary enough." Looks like I have trouble making up my own mind. The Incredibles "twas" indeed a good movie: I enjoyed the Bond-villain lair, the camper/rocket-ride back to the city, the discovery of Jack-Jack's abilities. But I still think my response was in tune with what I was reading.

6 comments:

DarkoV said...

Sir,
You are correct. Ratatouille was no The Incredibles (my favorite of the Pixars).
But Mr. Bird's tremendous talents were on display, particularly in the pack-o'-rats sequences; I felt as if they were crawling all over me. Shades of Ben!
I wish Pixar would let him do at least one adult animated feature. I'm not talking about nudity or sex; I'm talking about noir, very very dark noir.

Whisky Prajer said...

Pixar, Bird and adult content? I'm all for it, and I don't mind if nudity and/or sex was part of the package. But I daresay Disney might re-think its renewed contract with Pixar if they were to push for it.

paul bowman said...

Have to say, animation + sex-&-nudity = creepy, generally speaking, in my judgment. Especially Pixar-style. (A little too .. er .. rubbery — for one thing.)

Not sure about noir Pixar, maybe for not dissimilar reasons. Sort of interesting to try to imagine, though. Any precedents worth mentioning, I wonder?

DarkoV said...

Any precedents worth mentioning, I wonder?

Best as I can recall, some (certainly not all) aspects of Roger Rabbit showed the possibilities. The noir aspect I'm thinking about, Paul, would be those that are not copying the Bogart/Chandler movies of the '40's. They would evoke that darkness of soul and character but be original in their rendition. Sort of like what "Bullwinkle" was to all other cartoons back in the '60's; of that ouevre, but at an entirely different level.

paul bowman said...

Sort of like what "Bullwinkle" was to all other cartoons back in the '60's; of that oeuvre, but at an entirely different level.

Okay, I'm with you I think. Nice.

Whisky Prajer said...

That's a very different direction than I was thinking, but why not? Animation is all about the art of the unexpected, so why can't we have noir thrills via Bird and Pixar?

So far as Moose & Squirrel are concerned, I have to admit I greatly miss 2D animation ... even (especially) the cheap laughs - sigh