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, and many dedicated fans will insist that they never will. But you have to struggle to explain what could become Hollywood conventional wisdom: that Pixar is now a fading brand. Heaven forbid.
I’m not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there’s no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo reached a 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 dirge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats? Maybe it’s everything, maybe it’s nothing.
I don’t know, I really don’t. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be a running topic 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 primarily see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is embraced by artists and animation enthusiasts, but for the general population, the medium serves a more utilitarian purpose. Cartoons exist to keep our children quiet.
The explosion in mass media over the past generation, no doubt, has been a factor. When I was a small child, there were four television stations and maybe a few UHF channels. Then cable arrived and the number of stations rose to 30. Today, there are literally hundreds of stations across cable and satellite providers. Home video has made thousands of movie and TV titles available within reach. The rise of digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu only accelerates this momentum. And let us not forget the ten billion websites, all clamoring for our attention. American families have never felt so overwhelmed with entertainment options. Does this mean the loudest movies — the biggest explosions, the loudest fart jokes, the simplest plots — will rise to the top? Where does this leave thoughtful or nuanced movies?
Because of these reasons, I can understand the challenge in making a smart movie like Ratatouille a big hit. It’s so difficult to be heard over the noise. Even Pixar must sometimes struggle to be heard. This is going to be a major challenge for our beloved animation studio.
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 have answers. 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 more than a little subversive of movie conventions. It’s almost as though this movie were Bird’s gambit. Okay, folks, you say you like my movies for their heart; have a load of this.
This is not to suggest that I believe he’s being confrontational. But he does show a great confidence, a willingness to take the audience’s 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 old 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 the 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.
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 art form is 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, Bambi, Fantasia), 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 series 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 & Jerry and Rocky & Bullwinkle instead. And where, I lament, is today’s answer to those great American cartoons? Hardly anybody does it anymore; perhaps, to be fair, hardly anybody knows how to pull it off. Well, Brad 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, an array of endless explosions and rapid-fire cutting. Every multiplex blockbuster is afflicted; even The Incredibles was shackled needlessly with a loud action sequence in its final 20 minutes. Everything comes down to the Death Star Battle: Boom Boom Boom show’s over. Maybe I’m just getting old? What time does Matlock come on?
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 manhandled by the movie for cheap, preachy moral lessons. I wasn’t being suckered with a cheap, happy conclusion. Instead, something a little more quiet, a little more respectful, a little more honest. Have I mentioned this is a beautiful movie?
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.
My second observation is a moment that was horribly mis-read by the audience I sat with in the theater, which comes back to all that dumbing down. It’s the moment when 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, the Ratatouille.
When he takes his first bite, the camera quickly zooms forward, and Ego 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. The old man is reminded, in a flash, of what it was about food that he loved so much, and why he pursued 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 mostly college-age audience react? Bowling laughter. Haw haw haw haw!!! It was enough to make me want to throw things at them, for being so crass and so damned clueless.
This is why I don’t like watching movies with college kids much anymore. They can’t react to anything on the screen except with laughter, especially violence. Fast camera movement equals laughter. I’ve witnessed this watching a number of movies, equally misread, equally. It’s like dangling keys in front of a baby sometimes.
Which came first, the smarter movies or the smarter viewers? Remember the words of John Lennon, dear readers: War is over, if you want it.