Animated movies have certainly come a long way. In the beginning, they seemed to be about fairy tales, like Snow White and Cinderella. Even when they made their comeback, they were still fairy tales, like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Then they got digital and a whole new world of animation opened up and the little computer-animation-company-that-could, Pixar, blew Disney out of the water. Films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and Cars not only furthered the genre, but gave it a new level of respectability, even proving to be the catalysts behind the Academy creating an entire new category for the Oscars: Best Animated Feature.
Even so, lately, animated pictures, while exceedingly good technically, have felt more about merchandising than about telling a story. The last two Pixar films, The Incredibles and Cars, had more merchandising tie-ins, it felt like, than Batman and Superman combined. It’s almost as if the animation renaissance had worked against itself. Now that it had gained all this ground and earned all this respect, it was now losing it by selling out. How many celebrity voices do we need in a single movie? How many product placements do there need to be in a film aimed at an audience that can’t afford to buy much more than a GameBoy?
In the case of Cars, a film so over-the-top with style that it totally forgot about substance, there seemed to be more emphasis on merchandising and celebrity voices and rock music and flashy animation that they forgot the most important thing of all: story. Remember the rock band Pop Will Eat Itself? I thought of them as I watched Cars, fondly remembering the early beginnings of Pixar, when their little animated shorts were simple and heartfelt— before all their success went to their heads and corporate mergers lined their pocketbooks.
Animated Success Will Eat Itself.
But alas, nothing succeeds without an audience to pay for it. And I am a member of the masses that feed the beast. I’ll admit it. I am a sucker. For my part, though, up until Cars, Pixar did produce quality stuff. Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. are two of the best films ever—live action or animated. But with Cars, that sinking feeling did start to swell in my stomach. It just wasn’t the same. It seemed a total sell-out. Still, I believed.
And YET, when it came time for the newest Pixar release to come around, I was the first to critique the billboards I saw sprouting up all over town. Ratatouille, I thought? They’re trying to sell a movie in FRENCH? And not just that. It seemed too simple. I became curious. I wondered….where was the hook? Where was the glitz, the…..thing? By the “hook” and the “thing” I mean where was the merchandising opportunity? Where’s Mr. Incredible’s chest logo? Where’s the car? This is too boring! A rat who cooks in Paris? This is crazy! What are they thinking? Kids are so not going to be interested in this. And I started to look at the fine print…..no celebrity voices! Well, Janeane Garafalo is there, but she’s no Owen Wilson. And she’s not one of the leads. The leads are some guys named Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano. Who?
I was confused. They are releasing this in the summer. This is a movie set in France. About cooking. No flying cars. No superheroes. No celebrity voices. The only animals in sight are rats. Where are the penguins? Have these Pixar guys finally and officially lost their minds? God, this movie looks boring! Nobody’s going to go see this.
Then I realized it…..I had become what I despised. I had bought into the hype. I had believed what they had sold me…that an animated movie can only be good if it has celebrity voices and an easily merchandisable hook. It can only appeal to the masses if it’s dumbed-down and accessible on a wide scale.
So, I slapped myself and plunked down my hard-earned cash to see Ratatouille, to see if the Kool-Aid I had drunk had any nutritional value.
Ratatouille, the final result, left me even more confused coming out than I was going in. On the one hand, it reminded me a lot of an actor who earns their money and their fame doing big-budget mainstream films and then uses their clout to do a small, independent film where they can follow their heart. Ratatouille is not very flashy, has a very adult setting and subject matter, and will probably bore younger kids to tears, and I can imagine is the kind of screenplay that could only have been made by a studio and a director/writer (Brad Bird) that had the kind of success right before it (The Incredibles) that allowed them the leeway to get this made.
On the other hand, I would expect somewhat more “personal” pictures like this to have much more to say than this has. While the basic story is nice, the opportunities to really communicate something with meaning are totally lost and the film ends up being one-dimensional, emotionally, which, to me, is the biggest tragedy of all.
Breaking away from the mainstream hype could have given Ratatouille the chance to borrow elements from some of the all-time animated classics, films that found ways to blend true darkness with light, tragedy with comedy, peril with rescue. In the great animated classics, films like The Rescuers, 101 Dalmations, Dumbo and even Bambi, the film-makers made films that were truly multi-dimensional, they took the audience on a journey, they established characters and stories, had heartfelt themes and left the audience with something. These films have soul.
Ratatouille is a nice film. It certainly feels better to watch than Cars. It is charming. I wonder how it will appeal to young children, since it is about cooking, but it holds my attention, and I root for the…rat. But I found myself uninvolved emotionally. And, for me, that’s the bottom line. If you can’t get my heart involved, nothing else matters.
This was Pixar’s chance to show they had soul. It turns out all they really have is a good cream sauce.