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.
Image at head of this post taken without permission from Jenny L.'s excellent review of the film. Please don't sue me, anybody!


Craig D said...

Hey, you really have come across a point that nobody else has picked up on! I don't know if "Bambi-ism" is a perfect name for it, but in the context of "Man... was in the forest" I can see it.

As far as the "why bother to do CGI" question, would it have been a better film if it was done "Roger Rabbit" style with animated Rats interacting with "real" people in the "real" world?

(I haven't seen it and probably won't for another couple of years, if at all...)

"Q" the Enchanter said...

Funny, in Denby's review for the New Yorker his first sentence quotes Remy basically making your point: "There's something about humans.... They taste.... They discover." But then he follows up with a non sequitur: What's "implicit" in Remy's attitude, Denby says, is that "humans and rats are brothers under the fur: they alone, among all God's creatures, eat everything."

Kind of missing the point.

Lester Hunt said...

Q: Wow, it's hard to imagine an interpretation more different from mine!

Craig: Interesting idea! Note, though, that the animations in Roger Rabbit were hand-drawn.

Anonymous said...

Random items of possible relevance, even though I haven't seen the movie yet:

1) Don't the previews show Remy snitching a piece of cheese from a dessert tray? That would appear to be theft.

2) Isn't Remy the object of the usual sorts of human treachery towards animals? There's a preview scene that shows him almost pinned to a wall under a hail of knives. Or is that some other rat? Anyway, the villain is a human being: Skinner. Skin—that's the first step in "dressing" an animal.

3) And isn't Remy already thoroughly human from the start? He seems to aspire to become an artist, not to become a human being. What's more, he seems ready-endowed with a host of human virtues that his human counterparts don't possess. Why shouldn't we see this as another attempt to represent animals as better and smarter than human beings?

4) I wonder if anyone has compared this film with Disney's shorter classic "Ben and Me" (1953). Amos the mouse, you may recall, shows up in Ben Franklin's life, and out of the kindness of his heart and the keenness of his wits orchestrates the decisive moments in Franklin's career. He even whispers to Franklin crucial advice for writing the Declaration of Independence which Franklin then repeats verbatim to Thomas Jefferson. Like Remy, Amos too works from a hat.

5) The curious thing about movies like this is that the animal protagonists are superior in almost every way to human beings. They're not just innocent but morally and intellectually more astute. But since this superiority is based on human traits rather than animal traits, I suppose we can describe it as a valorization of the best of what it means to be human? On the other hand, is it possible that representing animals as better at being human than humans themselves even worse than Bambi-ism?

Craig D said...


The last two movies you've seen have been about humans "interacting" with animals.

Is there a pattern emerging?

Lester Hunt said...


Dang! You caught me! And I thought I was being so subtle, too!

Anonymous said...

There is one beat in "Ratatouille" that might have played better had the film been live action with an animated Remi: the moment when the entire kitchen crew must accept the unpalatable reality that a rat actually cooked all those wonderful recipes. It would have been more believable as a pure stretch of hard-to-grasp fantasy for realistic, rather than obviously caricatured fantasy CGI, humans to consider. (Ratatouille's computer generated people look more fanciful than any rat) But Pixar isn't in the live action business. And the "Roger Rabbit" approach probably wouldn't grab audiences today the way it did nearly 20 years ago.

DarkoV said...

Certainly a different view of the movie. A rodent Pinocchio wanting to be human.
I blew out a long sigh after seeing the movie. Still prefered Mr. Bird's previous effort, The Incredibles. Much funnier and more "cartoony".
Why the sigh? What would be wrong with Mr. Bird and company doing an adult cartoon, say like the long-ago and far-awy Fritz the Cat? You know it just won't happen though what with the algebra of traget audiences and all.

Anonymous said...

It just won't happen because Hollywood went totally corporate in the late 1970's. Films became content and mostly anti-thinking. Brad Bird is one of the few working animation directors who dares his audience to even hint at questioning the status quo.

Brett said...

How would you propose to NOT animate a rat cooking at a French restaurant? Train him to toss cheeses and spices into the soup while dancing around it?

While I agree that animated pictures lack some of the decadence of the soap bubbles glistening off a bar of soap in Snow White, many new effects are being continuously invented for these digital movies (especially the pixar flick, which are on the cutting edge) but you don't notice them because they look so natural.

I also agree that the film reads like a live action movie, particularly when the rat is scurrying around the kitchen floor and we are watching from his perspective. But what is wrong about using lessons from live action in animation?

Remember that in order to show a small rat-eye piece of a scene, you have to choreograph the entire scene... I am rather impressed at how they made this work.

Lester Hunt said...

Brett Holverstott, Well, I have to admit that I overstated my position a bit when I rhetorically asked "What is the point?" -- the implication being that there can't be any point at all to computer animation as we know it today. There is a point of course: to enable the filmmaker to depict things that could not have been depicted before. We can now make something that looks like a photo of ... anything that could possibly be imagined. In this sense, it increases the power of the fimmaker. But from an artistic point of view, what the image looks like is all-important, and power (in this sense) is less so. Snow White didn't look like a photo of anything. It looked like an animated painting. My real complaint is not that the new kind of animation is made, but that it is crowding out the old kind. All American movies, pretty much, now look like photographs of real things. This is an aesthetic narrowing and impoverishment, which is a great loss, I think.

Jenny Lerew said...


Just kidding! As a matter of fact, though you might be the 999th person to use this image(which, after all, I "found" on a Disney website and merely cropped and did a little PS jiggling myself), you're the 1st who actually mentioned me. For that you have my undying admiration. : )

Although this is an ancient post(by blog reckoning), I only just now found it and just had to say how much I enjoyed it. You know I liked the film, and had I more time this minute I'd address a couple of really interesting points you make here--but I can't, darn it(now I sound like Eddie!).

Great writing!

Lester Hunt said...

Jenny, Thanks! Coming from you, that is praise indeed!