Ratatouille - A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review


I've been following the box office numbers for Pixar's Ratatouille on Box Office Mojo, hopeful that the movie's fortunes turn out to surprise us. It's a common assumption that this movie would not be a big hit with audiences, certainly not when compared to Pixar's other hits. I've kept my hopes up that people would defy the suits and marketers who run Hollywood, and turn out in solid numbers. It hasn't really happened, and at this point I don't know if those numbers will ever arrive.

I'm really not sure why this is the case. Pixar is about as reliable a brand you can find for movies today. They've never made a bad picture, although a couple of them were weaker than the others. But you have to struggle to explain what will now become Hollywood conventional wisdom - that Pixar is now a fading brand.

I'm not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there's no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo hit the peak, every Pixar movie since has grossed steadily smaller numbers; first with The Incredibles, then Cars, and now (almost certainly) Ratatouille. Surely this would be a concern, but add in the immensely expensive Disney buyout from last year, and you can see the stakes involved. The knives will be out for John Lasseter and Pixar's generals, and that battle is really only just beginning.

So what's wrong here? Is it simply that the market is oversaturated with cgi cartoons? Are parents reaching the burnout point, tiring of having to drag their children to more and more animated animal movies? Has the public become burned from an endless durge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats?

I don't know, I really don't. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be the running theme of the Conversations on Ghibli blog. And here it is, in case you've missed it - Americans don't think of animation as an artform or a facet of the movies; they see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is lost on these poor souls.

Little surprise that anyone would think this way, since that's what they've been served for decades. And movies and the American public in general have been steadily dumbing down for a generation. Movies are expected to provide lots of big, loud noises, cheap gags, and lots and lots of explosions. The rise of corporate consolidation has only exacerbated things.

So I can understand the challenge in making a smart, subtle movie like Ratatouille a big hit. Too many people don't understand that such a thing is possible; and the suits have no incentive to show them otherwise.

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Brad Bird is among the smartest filmmakers in America today. If you were really perceptive, you were likely telling anyone within earshot about a little movie called The Iron Giant, a charming and humane movie that no one ever saw. And you likely had a difficult time explaining why it was a better form of animation than, say, the latest Disney picture. That's largely because it's strength lies in its heart, in its storytelling, not necessarily in the moving drawings themselves.

Again, I really don't know. I'm just scrambling for understanding. Bird seems destined to become one of those gifted filmmakers who earns great respect and praise, without really connecting to the greater public. Yes, The Incredibles was a great success, and it's a terrific movie, but sometimes I wonder if that success had to do with its aping of superhero comics and James Bond spy movies. Did people register with the human emotions of the characters, or were they just conditioned to watch yet another Bond spoof with big explosions?

Maybe that's the challenge of Ratatouille. It's a movie that continues to push the human drama we saw in The Incredibles, but without the enormous, action blockbuster set-pieces to keep the kiddies from becoming distracted. It's almost as though this movie were Bird's gambit. Okay, folks, you say you like my movies for their heart; well, have a load of this.

That's not to say that I believe he's being confrontational. But he does show a great confidence, a willingness to take the audiences' preconceived notions, including their anxieties, and challenge them. The basic framework of what became Ratatouille was already in place by the time Bird took over the project. It's the story of a rat who dreams of becoming a famous French cook. That premise was already in the public consciousness, but no one knew how he would handle the material. It is, after all, a delicate subject, mixing two ideas together that are polar opposites, rats and cooking.

The temptation, I suppose, would have been to turn Remy and his fellow rodents into another batch of cuddly, wuddly cartoon animals, just like 'ol Mickey, just like every other animated cartoon to hit the pike this decade. But that doesn't happen. Bird knows our squeamishness about rats, and he doesn't shy away from it. He faces it head on. There are some sequences in the movie, particularly at the beginning and the end, when packs of rats overwhelm an environment. In these moments, what we see are essentially rats. They swarm and scuttle with a fluidity that is downright alien. And a little unsettling, too.

I'm reminded of the way Isao Takahata stylistically changed the appearances of the tanuki in Pom Poko, from real-life naturalism to cartoon caricature. Brad Bird achieves something like this in his movie, but without the visual shifts. His rats pretty much look the same, apart from the necessary lighting and compositions.

I don't think the goal is to unsettle or scare us. If anything, Bird shows a great deal of respect for his audience, by acknowledging those fears. But he likewise doesn't shy away from being honest. This is they story we've chosen to tell, and these are they players. They are who they are.

For me, this approach - more subtle, more honest - is just what makes Remy such a likable character. It makes him more believable. It helps, of course, that he isn't banding about the screen, shouting at the top of his lungs, or offering yet another batch of lazy movie quotes to keep the stupids happy.

Ratatouille isn't merely the story of a character with a crazy dream, but a portrait of an artist, a character who pursues his muse wherever it leads him. Conventions be damned. It takes any old cartoon rat to be zapped by lightning while cooking on a rooftop. It takes an artist to get zapped, and then rush back for an encore. That's dedication.

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I don't want to spend forever retelling everything in Ratatouille that I enjoyed, because we'd be here all day, and I'd be reciting the entire show. I just want to share a couple thoughts and impressions that have stayed with me this past week.

I think that emotional honesty, that respect for the audience, is Brad Bird's best gift. I hope the movie business never beats it out of him. American animation needs his sensibilities, and the artform is far better for it. It seems that he and Pixar met at just the right time. The studio has been steadily growing, pushing the boundaries of computer animation. And now, it seems as though they've finally mastered the tools. They're finally making animation that is as expressive, fluid, and emotional as the hand-drawn style. This is a tremendously beautiful movie, full of subtle hues and shades and textures. All that is needed for great art is a capable mind, a director with the humanity to match. And I think that's just what has happened here.

I'll be honest; I was tremendously moved by this movie. It felt as though a new plateau had been reached, especially in the character animation. Animators always talk about "acting," from their perspective, and apart from a few notable moments (Pinocchio, for one), their ideas have been lost on me. Ratatouille shows what is really meant by "acting" in animation. There's a gracefulness to movements, large and small. The characters don't move; they dance, like Fred Astaire in all of his wonderful movies. I remember reading how Fellini would play music for his actors while filming, to set the proper mood. In Ratatouille, you can hear the music in everyone's heads, because it's playing in yours as well.

What's striking is that this rhythm translates to the chase sequences so effectively. Brad Bird has always been a great student of the classic cartoon chase, as his 1987 Family Dog demonstrates. For me, those were the cartoons I loved the most. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote. Not Disney. Disney cartoons were stale and lifeless and preachy, always so puritanical. Even by the time I was eight I felt embarrassed by them. Give me Tom and Jerry instead. And where, I lament, is today's answer to those great American cartoons? Hardly anybody does it anymore; or perhaps, to be fair, hardly anybody knows how to pull it off. Well, Bird sure knows. He knows better than anyone.

The problem with everything post-Star Wars is that every movie treats action like an assault on the senses. You, the public, are too stupid to grasp anything more than endless explosions and rapid-fire cutting, set to blaring pop songs that were never really any good (why are Counting Crows still around, I ask?). This weakness affects nearly every big-budget movie in this country. Even The Incredibles was shackled needlessly with a noisy action sequence in its final 20 minutes. Everything, as I've said, comes down to the Death Star Battle. Boom boom boom show's over.

Ratatouille is loaded with terrific action sequences, but a wonderful thing happens in the movie's final act. It stops. The conclusion is not dependent upon anything but it's original premises: food, cooking, the passion of pursuing one's art. I was overwhelmed by the final 30 minutes, because it just felt so right. It felt honest. I wasn't being mugged by the theatre's sound system. I wasn't being mugged by the movie for cheap, preachy moral lessons. I wasn't being suckered with a cheap, happy conclusion. Have I mentioned this is a beautiful movie?

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POSSIBLE SPOILERS THIS SECTION - Proceed With Caution!

I want to finish with a couple observations from Ratatouille that have stayed with me. It all relates to what I've been saying and writing about. There's a scene near the end when Linguini, the shy, lanky cook who is both Remy's collaborator and puppet, has to give the big rousing speech to his fellow cooks. This is the big pep speech at the climax of so many movies, one where the hero wins back the respect of his peers, and they all roll up their sleeves for the big fight/big game/big finish.

This time, Remy's secret role as the restaurant's star talent is revealed, and poor Linguini appeals to his chefs to come together, not to abandon him in their hour of need. And then something remarkable happens.

The cooks walk out. Every one of them.

And the movie stays with that. Sure, Colette, the tough romantic lead, does return to Linguini's side, but the rest? They're gone for good. There is no cheap reconciliation, no tired cliches to be played out. The conclusion to the movie will be performed without them, and they will never be heard from again.

The second thing is a moment that was horribly mis-read by the audience I sat with. This comes back to all that dumbing down. It's the moment when the infamous and dreaded food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole masterfully, as a character who is not villainous but plays the part) is handed the titular meal.

When he takes his first bite, he is immediately hurled back into his childhood. There, as a young boy with tears in his eyes, he is comforted by his mother with a hot meal. Ego is reminded, in a flash, of what it was about food that he loved so much, and why he pursed a career as a food critic. It's probably the most touching and humane and deeply personal moment in the entire film.

How did the audience react? Bowling laughter. Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw!!! It was enough to make me want to throw things at them, for being so crass and so damned stupid.

This is why I don't like watching movies with college kids anymore, you see. They can't react to anything on the screen except with laughter, especially violence. Uh, fast movement mean laugh. Or somethin'.

Which came first, the smarter movies or the smarter viewers? Remember the words, dear readers, of Saint John Lennon the Divine: War is over, if you want it.

17 comments:

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Great review, but it sure could've used a spoiler warning near the end there...

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel!

The golden arrow of truth hit my heart when you made that comment about American audiences expecting nothing more than a babysitter from animated films. I remember a few years ago having an eye-rolling converstation with a nervous parent who complained about the "death of the firstborn" sequence in The Prince of Egypt as being too scary for children. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, it IS in the Bible, and a major plot point of the Exodus story--besides the fact the scene was treated with extrodinary taste and sensativity. If you go to an animated film based on the story of Moses, what exactly are you expecting? Your answer, "babysitter", is what said nervous mother was probably searching for.

This audience expectation may be the biggest hurdle to cross, if animated films in the U.S. are ever going to be able to ever escape the ghetto they're relegated to. That's why I've always tuned out to people who try to compare U.S. and Japanese animation--because the two publics are so different in what they expect and what they're accustomed to (and what execs would be willing to give funding for). Just look at most of the U.S. TV promos for Ratatouille. Awful, mainly because it focused on the silly gags as if that was all the film had to offer; as if it were Shrek or some jazz like that. If it wasn't for the fact that it was Pixar and Brad Bird, and I'm a total animation nerd, I probably wouldn't have caught it in theatres--the idea of rats in the kitchen already being as unappealing as it already is. My cynical side says public perception about cartoons will never change.

Perhaps it's too early to worry about Ratatouille as far as ultimate B.O. numbers so far, and even total revenue like merchendising and the like. The insaciable bean-counters unfairly expect Pixar to turn out a miracle every time, and each miracle more miraculous than the last. If you look at the numbers for Ratatouille in terms of staying power, this film is doing extrodinarily well, and will continue to make a lot of money throughout the summer, rather than just the first two weekends. Even the supposed "dissapointment" Cars, is continuing to make tons of money. It will be interesting to see what the international numbers will be.

Your point about dumb audiences not being able to react with anything but laughter was interesting. When Anton Ego had his flashback to his childhood, I laughed too. Maybe I'm one of the great dumb, unwashed masses, but it was the kind of laughter when I see something totally unexpected. That moment in the movie is the one I remember most, and also is indicative of Pixar's specialness. It's sort of remeniscent of the final scene in Monsters Inc., where the audence doesn't actually get to see the little girl in the end. Or it kind've reminds me of the scene in The Incredibles, where after Dash discovers he can run on water, gives that mischevious little giggle. In all those cases, a common thread of beautiful and unexpected honesty shines through them. Family movies are usually so bombastic and calculated.

The fact that the audience fairly howled with laughter at the critic's flashback is perhaps (I suspect, but can't prove) an indication of the failure of films and popular culture in general to remind audiences of their humanity, and reaquaint them with the full range of their emotions, especially sympathy. Perhaps most family movies, for all of their artificial "heart" and "moral lessons" have hardened people to genuine heart and moral lessons that have teeth. In one of my particular screenings of The Iron Giant, people laughed when Hogarth's head got bashed with a tree branch. What do you think?

In an interview Brad Bird talked about just how impossible it was in the 90's to get any of his ideas greenlighted for animated films, because none of the execs had any interest in getting behind a project that deviated from the Disney model. The Pixar experiment is a pioneering and unprecedented foray into the unknown, and Rattatouille is definately a step in that direction. My cynical side says it's only a matter of time before the vultures descend upon Mr. Lassiter and his crew. My optomistic side, my Pixarian side says that they'll whoop everyone in the end.

--Adrienne

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

WOW! Now that's a response! Excellent work, Adrienne. You've given us all something to think about. Maybe you should be blogging, eh?

Noel Vera said...

Wow, Benjamin completely missed that spoiler warning, didn't he?

Anyways--sorry but you've been tagged.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

The spoiler warning was edited in after my comment ;-)

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Yeah, I added that in after Benjamin's remark. It's something I didn't really notice all that much. Not that it matters much. This isn't a movie that hinges on its ending; the journey is more important than the destination.

In any case, it's there now.

On a related note, what's this business about being tagged?

Anonymous said...

Good movie, Ratatouille. On the flashback, I totally agree that it should've been the most touching and humane moment. But I too felt like laughing at it and totally understand why people were too.

Do you know why? It's because the camera truck/zoom happened soo fast, it was funny. The camera move was such an exaggeration, it was almost a parody of a moment of epiphany. This is a postmodern sarcastic reaction, like those Orbit gum commercials.

Personally, I felt the scene was mishandled. The memory was so sincere but the transition was so comedic. The camera move should've been more gentle. Compare that flashback to say, Jessie's flashback in Toy Story 2. Completely different. Somebody at Pixar had to have known the reaction it would cause and must've wanted to keep it light hearted.

-James

Noel Vera said...

Sorry, Daniel, my mistake--here's the correct link:

You've been tagged

Chris Sobieniak said...

I can understand Daniel's frustrations with having seen that scene with Ego going back to his childhood in a similar way. I might've shed a tear at it thinking it was a very touching and effective way of showing how he became what he is. Thankfully I think the theater I went to see it at didn't even have any laughter at all for that scene, so I was spared the humiliation of thinking there was something compelling about it in the first place.

That other part with the cooks walking out on Linguini is one where I also found it to be quite unpredictable and well thought out (though the pirated copy I had to watch of it later on showed a few people apparently didn't get it either as I heard some chuckles too). There were those many moments in this film where I had a thought of what might happen next, especially the thought of the restaurant getting it's two stars back, but no! This movie lived up to my expectations of being unpredictable, and I enjoyed guessing what came next! The last 20-30 minutes of the film are worth it for the emotional investment I feel I've hardly ever seen done before in an animated film (at least from America).

Again, it's still hard to sell anyone here on animation being as competitive as live-action when so many have the preconceived notion of what it is, and no understanding how to get passed those barriers.

Again, Brad Bird is a rare talent, and some of his ideas and theories are ones that need to be addressed more and more. I've been following up on his career for some time, and can understand just how he must feel about wanting to have these things happen in animation as he would like it to. In the 1980's, he apparently shopped around Hollywood trying to get a producer interested in adapting Will Eisner's "The Spirit" into animation, but being given the usual comment about how the film doesn't live up to the "Disney" model that only Disney could make an animated film that would gross a specific amount of money and all that. Everything he has said about animation and how important stories are in it fits in well with what I felt about it as well, as it was the best stories I ever liked to read/see than for what is usually passable as "eye candy" today. Watching the Amazing Stories "Family Dog" episode, or perhaps the "Krusty Gets Busted" episode of the Simpsons as well as Iron Giant and Incredibles would prove just how far he goes into providing us with a story and characters well fleshed out than being mindless robots.

What Pixar has been able to do since the beginning has been to show you could do these things in animation which often is said to be due to their use of CGI over hand-drawn animation (due to the notions of industry leaders who should've had their heads out of their asses to know more).

Shame if the numbers for Ratatouille aren't as impressive as expected, of course it would be more like it to suggest the public as seen enough "talking animal" CGI flicks as of recent years, but unlike those movies, this one doesn't talk down to you or anything, and I can gleam something from those deigns and fluidity I haven't seen done in CGI since.

Too bad I've rambled on as long as I did, but I just wanted to get some things off my chest too!

Still, this is one movie that might inspire me to get back into art again. Haven't done much in nearly a year or so.

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel! The rambling just continues. I have a question for you: do you in your opinion honestly, truly, in your heart of hearts think that there is a large *enough* U.S. market for truly adult animated films?

Because, frankly, I have my serious doubts as fervently I wish it to be true---that I wish there is an audience, an audience that simply needs to be recognized and groomed. And animated films are such an enourmously expensive endevour to spend on an audience that may not exist. It's understandable logic to stick with the audience you already have. I think there is an adult audience for animation here, I just have my doubts as to whether it's a large enough segment of the population to make any film a "hit."

Rattatouille is a strange movie in that it is probably too adult to appeal to a small child, and too "kiddie" looking (the world's gotta be burnt out on anthropomorphic talking animal cgi films) for adults, besides the unappealing premise. The film is a very good film, well-executed, and quite beautiful at times. But...are those qualities enough to get butts in seats?

The mantra that Trix (cartoons) are for kids, or at least that a cartoon is not a legitimate art form is a barrier that even Pixar alone, even with all its' accomplishments and influence...can they change that attitude on their own? What do you think?

--Adrienne

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

There definitly is an audience for adult animated features. It's just that you might not have the budget of 60mil or more. But is that necessary? Tokyo Godfathers and Paprika both cost about 2 million US dollars. Triplets of Belleville cost what, 8 million? Sure, the US is a more expensive place, and animation usually is a more costly process than live-action, but enormous budgets so far have been a luxury for western animation. And as a result a curse. I think what the market needs is a western type of Studio 4°... A smaller studio, that does relatively cheap pictures, doesn't have a fulltime crew, but goes for completely different projects than other studios. For a while I was hoping Laika would be that, but they're going pretty bigbudget too. We'll see.

Oggs Cruz said...

I completely agree with your very well written observations. Ratatouille is the first CGI-crafted film that I completely respected (Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Happy Feet --- I adored, but they never felt timeless, as their 2-dimensional siblings). It's storytelling is both complex yet masterfully told at the same time; enough to be appreciated by both kids and serious critics alike.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

This is a magnificent discussion! I heartedly thank everyone for joining in, and I encourage you to continue. I'm interested to hear what people think about this movie as time rolls on. Now that the initial hype has dissipated, perhaps we can enjoy with a clearer eye, and see just what it is about Ratatouille that works so well.

According to the box office numbers, the film has done steady, if slight, business. It's on course to reach $200 million. That's a great success, yes, but it's still on track to be Pixar's lowest-grossing feature ever. And don't point out how much money Dreck 3 turned in. That's just embarrassing.

Any theories as to why this is so? Why haven't the fans tuned in? Is the rats? Is everyone burned out on animal cartoons? Or is everyone simply waiting for the DVD?

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vice city said...

Yeah so what i think is that this movie is a really good movie for chefs to wacht.:)

~ tofu

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