Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ratatouille (Bird)

Rave reviews for a Pixar film induce more and more yawns from me with each successive release. I understand why their films are so highly praised. Pixar movies, given their built-in audience of younger persons with not-so-discriminating taste, could afford to be so much worse than they really are. Let's face it: as long as a movie has bright colors and talking animals, a child will watch it. The critic, given these low expectations, is then simply blown away that such a big-budget marketing apparatus is also so thoughtful, so intelligent, so witty.

If only I were so easily satisfied.

You see, many times I have come away at the end of a well-crafted Pixar film, and thought to myself, "Wow, that's going to be a classic." But then a little time passes, my initial impression begins to change and I develop the hunch that for whatever reason, although the film seemed to have all the elements of a perfect family feature, it would not become a classic in the sense that Snow White and Pinocchio have become classic. Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo - immensely enjoyable, all. And yet they have not stayed with me, the way that even some of the lesser animated Disney films have stayed with me. Perhaps it is because I am no longer a child. Or perhaps it is because the Pixar movies are not as good. As an adult I have returned to almost all of the Disney films and they strike me as better - as an adult. So I take that as a sign.

Speculate for hours on this topic as you wish. Are the Pixar films too cute? Too calculated? Too snarky? Too hegemony-reinforcing? Valid points, all. But for me, what's really lacking in the Pixar movies is a sense of risk. Cheesemeister he may have been, it nevertheless could not be said of Walt Disney, in his first few years at least, that he was a man who played it particularly safe. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was roundly predicted to be an embarrassing flop. "Who's going to sit in a movie theater and watch a cartoon for 80 minutes?," they all proclaimed (Oh, but he had the last laugh, my friends). Fantasia? Walt did not sit around and preview Fantasia for focus groups. He just freakin' made it. In fact, Disney did not achieve financial security until the opening of Disneyland in 1955. The point is, sure, Walt was a master of marketing, but he took chances, God damn it. Whereas Pixar's attitude seems to be more like, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And that is why I have ceased becoming too excited about any of their films.

I have also tired of the CGI look. It may be the world's most labor-intensive process, but at this point it no longer feels that way to me. Disney animators literally spent years drawing every ripple in a pond in Bambi or Pinocchio, and it shows. Also, Disney altered its look from film to film (at least until the cheap-o years of 101 Dalmations and The Aristocats, that is). In "making-of" documentaries, Pixar animators will gush about all the "new techniques" and "state-of-the-art" technologies" they use, but I'm sorry, it's all starting to look the same to me. And in the end, at least 50% of a movie is its look, and if I don't like the look, then I'm lukewarm on the movie, no matter how gripping the storyline may happen to be.

So with a fortress of skepticism standing there to greet it, how did Ratatouille fare? Little could I have anticipated that the very subject of Ratatouille happened to be the struggle of the artist in a hostile world and the skepticism of the snobby critic. So by gummit, I'd say it fared well. The storyline, slave to such a well-oiled marketing apparatus as it needed to be, was rather esoteric and unconventional given the circunstances. I mean, if Little Earl starred in a Pixar film, he would have starred in Ratatouille. I don't know how many kids are really be able to grasp the plight of the creative mind and the longing that is buried in the heart of the icy intellectual. I thought the whole business with the rat controlling the young chef's body by tugging on his hair was contrived. But the final scenes, in particular, I found surprisingly moving. Hell, like Anton Ego, I was ready to come at this flick with all my might, and in the end it won me over.

But by how much, really? As with all the others, it seemed terrific at the closing credits, but the day after I barely even gave it any thought. So what gives? Do I just have it out for Pixar because I'm a rat bastard? Grant me a sliver of humanity at least. No, ultimately Ratatouille did not resonate with me on quite the level I wanted it to because I did not feel the connection between the beautiful sentiments of the story and the sentiments, and the experience, of the filmmakers who tried to imbue it with life. Ratatouille is an extremely individualistic story shaped by committee. Brad Bird may be the legitimate auteur of Ratatouille, but it does not show. More likely, the story was sliced and diced by a million different hands until every target demographic was included, every focus group appeased. No, Walt himself did not lovingly hand-paint every frame of Pinocchio, but those movies smacked of his personal vision. And until Pixar can learn to match a personal story with a personal approach, I'm sticking to my guns.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ***


Herr Zrbo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Herr Zrbo said...

Haven't seen Ratatouille yet (it's in my queue) but I definitely know what you mean that Pixar films, or any computer animated films, generally don't capture my attention. Finding Nemo was fun while it lasted, but it hasn't stuck with me at all. And after hearing all the hype for the Incredibles, I thought the movie was abyssmal.

Besides the not-taking-chances part you discussed (with which I agree), I think another part of it is that kids movies aren't willing to be scary anymore. Seems like (from my memories of being a child) that kids movies in the 80s were a lot darker.

Like the part in the Neverending Story where Atreyu's horse gets stuck in the quicksand - that's scary stuff, even nowadays it's kinda freaky. Kids movies nowadays want to hold your hand and afterwards walk you to 7-11 so you can buy the limited edition slurpee cup.

Think about Star Wars - not only do Luke's adopted parents get killed, but we actually see their burned corpses laying on the ground. Bambi's mom gets shot. David Bowie sings songs to Jennifer Connelly!! Seriously, kids movies today just aren't the same.

Deniselle said...

I really liked this post. A lot of good points about animation today.

I've often wondered why the modern animated films don't capture my attention the same way as old ones, and it must have to do with the style of animation somehow. It doesn't look bad, it just lacks the heart that old-style animation had.

Little Earl said...

Yeah, there's something about it that doesn't give the characters as much weight, I can't really explain it too well. Persepolis, for example, probably didn't cost nearly as much money to make as Rataouille, and yet because they came up with their own visual look it felt like the images had more mental value in my head.

I guess at this point there's so much money involved, and why mess with a winning formula, right? Thus the Pixar movies are only marginally adventurous and marginally scary, lest anyone be alienated. Maybe that would explain the existence of The Incredibles, which Zrbo calls "abyssmal" (hey, didn't beat around the bush on that one). As Yoggoth said to me, "You know it's a bad sign when your sympathies are with the villain." Great family movies are about the outcasts and the loners (which is why Ratatouille was at least halfway interesting). But yeah, The Incredibles is where Pixar really started to lose me.

Forget about Luke's aunt and uncle's charred corpses on the ground. They kill Obi-Wan! They blow up an entire planet filled with innocent people! Luke's X-wing fighter buddies all get shot down in the most horrific manner as well. I mean, there's actually something at stake.

I was even thinking about some of the later Disney movies like The Lion King, and I realized that I probably liked The Lion King more than any of the Pixar movies. Why is that? It still had all the silly jokes and the Whoopi Goldberg comic relief and all the usual plot twists. But for some reason I cared more.

Herr Zrbo said...

Yeah, there was something at stake in those older movies. I just mentioned the bodies because they're actually intentionally shown to the viewer.

I think too that a lot of Pixar type films nowadays suffer from the Shrek effect of "Hey let's be cool and reference modern day stuff! Hey look, even though we're in 2nd century Rome they have a pop star named Brittanius Spears, get it, get it!?!"