Rats!

I was wandering the wide halls of the Internet here recently (it’s how I get my exercise), when I ran across a curious article on CNN asking whether Ratatouille was “ripped off” because the stalwart minds in charge of the Oscars had denied it a best picture nomination. The article brings up numerous points in the favor of the film, including glowing reviews from dilettantes and true art devotees alike; it compares it to another Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, which had been considered for a best picture nomination (considered by whom, I couldn’t say); and it brings up the movie’s success in France, a country apocryphally accused of worshiping Jerry Lewis (the denial of which proving they do, indeed, have great taste), and notorious for poo-poohing food, words and other cultural delights that ain’t al’origine fran├žais. What the article failed to consider, however, and what I feel is a gaping flaw in the whole piece, was that the movie was le blah.

In fact, Pixar makes a lot of yawners.

Visually, as with almost all Pixar films, Ratatouille was stunning. If nothing else, Pixarian artists do an amazing job creating a visual style, keeping with it throughout the film, and paying attention to even the tiniest detail that you easily find yourself immersed in the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter that our human hero in Ratatouille has a phallic nose worthy of Ron Jeremy; that you can peer into the nostrils and see that someone needs to grab a tissue and blow is what matters. I give full props to the animators.

The writers, however… meh.

Pixar, as highly touted as they are (they almost have an Apple cult-like following… and, indeed, the two groups often intersect in the Venn Diagram of Obsessiveness) spends the vast majority of their budget on animation, yet settles for lackluster storylines. The only exception so far has been the Brad Bird-helmed The Incredibles. But then, Brad Bird, when involved with a project from the very beginning, makes overwhelmingly touching films. His earlier Iron Giant was probably one of the best cell-animated films ever, and each film is a result of his vision and hard work. (Not to mention the incredible talent who help put the film together. Bird couldn’t do it without them.)

The writing sin committed in Pixar films–and for Disney animated films in general–is that everything is predictable, and not in a good way. Familiarity with a story isn’t bad, per se; however, the director should put a shiny new spin on the story; maybe present it to us from a different, and enticing, point-of-view. That’s what Bird did with The Incredibles. Stories of superheros aren’t new or original; neither are stories of families having problems; but Bird combined the two and gave us a world both comical and serious: we laugh at the sight of Mr. Incredible lifting locomotive cars to get in shape, and we’re stunned by the admission of Mrs. Incredible when she warns Violet and Dash:

Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys aren’t like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you are children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.

The dismay on the faces of the kids when they hear this, and the realization that Helen is now expertly acting two roles, mom and superhero, is palpable. It’s a moment that could have been incredibly hokey, yet Bird and company pulled it off better than even most live-actioned shows could have done.

Ratatouille, though, lacked such expert emotional subtlety. The whole film was working on a single plane of blandness, and despite the efforts of Bird to salvage the film (he was brought in after Disney execs lost faith in the original director), the film was defeated by an onslaught of the doldrums. The characters are shallow, their interactions lack emotional fruition, and we’re told about relationships instead of being shown them. The romance between Linguini and Colette isn’t something that blossomed, or something that burst forth from an animated lust volcano; instead, the two of them go from strangers who are wary of one another to, without any indication why, “the couple”. Anton Ego was amusing, and the potential for depth was certainly there, but he lacked the attention and screen time needed to make him a truly excellent character. Remy, arguably the film’s star (although, I think the animation won out here), is best summed up as a result of a silly joke taken too far. (“What if a rat–kitchen vermin!–wanted to cook? Wouldn’t that be hilarious?” No, not really.)

In the end, we know who’s going to win, but there’s no real lesson learned here; there’s no underlying message or hint about how we should view the world or each other. In The Incredibles we also know who’s going to win, but in that movie it was the journey that mattered, not the destination. Thanks to the excellent script and voice acting, we know the Parrs love one another and are devoted to the family, and we know this without having to be hit over the head with it.

I don’t suggest people avoid Ratatouille (I save that warning for the notorious Doc Hollywood rip-off, Cars), but I simply don’t understand why anyone would bemoan its lack of a best picture nomination. The film simply belongs in the pantheon of other Disney movies that hide poor writing with neat animation (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, etc…) or catchy songs (The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, etc…).

To be honest, though, the film did make me hungry. So, there’s that.

Posted Friday, February 22nd, 2008 at 2:11 pm
Filed Under Category: ya' know?
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