Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Wisdom of Ratatouille

There’s one thing about this movie (which I just saw at the local multiplex) that none of the reviews seem to mention. I found it not only very obvious but very exiting. In an animated feature that has both human and animal characters, usually the humans are the bad guys because they either a) kill and eat the cute animals or b) pollute the animals’ environment and despoil the earth or c) both a and b. This is the story of an animal who wants to be human, or at least live like a human being. In other words, human is good! And the film explains what the essential difference between the human and the animal is: humans make, animals take. Rats take other people’s food, humans invent new foods. Thus, cuisine is a symbol of what gives human beings whatever dignity they may have. Remy, the cute animal protagonist, is a rat who wants to be a chef. Throughout the movie, stealing food (even to feed hungry friends!) is treated as the one thing he must not do, or he will lose his hard-won human dignity. We repeatedly hear the motto, “Anyone can cook” (ie., even a rat). At the end, we realize that what this means is not that everyone can be a great cook (sorry, not everyone is great) but that greatness can come from anywhere.

Imagine something like this coming out of Hollywood. And from Disney, no less! There exists in our culture an ideology that I think of as egalitarian-enviro-vegatario-anarcho-socialism. Not only is everybody equal, but animals are as good as people. All violence is evil (don’t even think about self-defense). The highest experience would be a big warm, fuzzy group-hug with the whole world. Sometimes I think this ideology was invented, not by Karl Marx, Rachel Carson, or Jean Jacques Rousseau, but by Walt Disney in the thirties and forties. If calling it enviro- ... etc. is too complicated, just call it “Bambi-ism.” I don’t think anyone will wonder what you mean. The philosophical core of “Ratatouille” is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Bambi-ism. And that is really something to celebrate.

Also, the voicework is magnetically charming, the dialogue is witty, the story well-constructed, the music (though not especially memorable) is effective, and the computer-generated mise-en-scene is brilliant. Most amazingly, even though it is an animated feature, it shows an unprecedented amount of respect for the viewer’s intelligence. Notice that the title breaks one of the oldest rules in Hollywood: never, ever give a movie a title that you have to explain to the audience -- especially if you also have to explain how to pronounce it! (Paramount once made Joe von Sternberg change a movie title from Capriccio Espagnol to The Devil is a Woman. Need I say more?) The tradition is to treat your audience like slow-witted children. This movie treats them like intelligent adults.

Having said this, I guess I have to say that I think it is probably a bad thing that this movie is so good. (Here I am being influenced by Eddie Fitzgerald at Uncle Eddie’s Theory Corner!) It has two characteristics that I really don’t care for, and its success will no doubt make movies with these two traits even more common than they already are.

For one thing, it's yet another one of those fully computer-animated movies. The goal with computer animation seems to be to make the frame look as much like a photograph as possible. That means that it will have none of the sort of visual style that a drawing or a painting can have. What is the point? The end credits of this movie, which were hand-drawn, had more style than the whole rest of the film.

The other characteristic I don't at all care for is that the aesthetic of this film is actually much more like that of a live action film than it is like a traditional animated one. The classic animated movies were visual-driven, as were the slapstick comedies of the twenties. This movie is more like the witty, wise-cracking, talky comedies of the thirties. Per se, there is nothing wrong with that. I love The Front Page, The Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night. But if a movie is going to be so script-driven and dialogue-dominated, why should it be animated at all? Again, what is the point? There is really no reason for this movie to be animated, other than that actors in rat suits would look silly. But the worst thing is -- it makes it even less likely that Hollywood will make the the other, visually driven kind of animation again, and that is really something to be mourned.
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Image at head of this post taken without permission from Jenny L.'s excellent review of the film. Please don't sue me, anybody!
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