2007. Brad Bird
I, along with most of the planet, have been a fan of Pixar Animation from day one. I remember vividly, sitting in the audience full of children waiting and watching as Toy Story unfolded before our eyes. It was one of the few moviegoing experiences I’ve had where you truly saw something you had never seen before. I was thirteen years old then and straddling the line between childish and adult taste. In fact, I remember feeling a little strange before the movie began amidst all the toddlers and chaos. “What am I doing at this kids movie? I should be seeing Casino.” But Toy Story straddled that line too and set the standard for all of Pixar’s subsequent work in appealing to all ages. Now I’m twenty-four years old and Pixar has released seven feature length films over an eleven year span. I saw A Bug’s Life five times in the theater, Toy Story 2 six times, Monsters, Inc. twice, and Finding Nemo three times, so my allegiance has been devout. Then The Incredibles came along and became the first to disappoint me and the first not to warrant any repeat viewings. Cars looked like a complete misfire and so I avoided it all together and that brings us to the eighth film in the Pixar repertoire and a significant return to form in Ratatouille. Brad Bird is back behind the camera and even though his work with The Incredibles was a little too frenetic for me, I’m still a huge fan of The Iron Giant and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I also knew that Czech animator Jan Pinkava was originally attached to the film for a long time and the look and style of many of the characters bear his unique stamp.
So, let’s talk about the style. The animators at Pixar have done nothing less than astonishing work on every single film in terms of detail, action and color. The streets and sewers of Paris are rendered right down to the dirt in the cracks of the pavement. It’s almost an embarassment to be looking at artwork so painstakingly created with such spoiled eyes and many of the intricacies and minutia are lost by the viewer being sucked into the story. The camerawork in the action scenes is unparalleled and takes full advantage of the limitless nature of animation, putting the viewer right where they need to be in order to create the most impact. Look closer though, and the real joy in these films is the absolute authenticity in the body language of the characters. Watch how Remy moves when he keeps running past the stewing pot of soup, trying to escape, but continually being lured back to throw in some more essential ingredients. It’s jaw-dropping how the animators can get a laugh from the flick of a wrist on a rat.
The voice-work is uniformly outstanding, with only Brad Garrett and Peter O’Toole being recognizable. Everyone else from Janeane Garofalo to Patton Oswalt to Pixar staple John Ratzenberger are incognito behind strong French accents and even stronger characters. One of the reasons that Pixar will always be leaps and bounds ahead of its computer animated contemporaries is that they actually seem to cast their films based on talent rather than star power. It will forever be beyond my comprehension why Cameron Diaz gets $10 million dollars to record two weeks worth of boring line-readings for the Shrek franchise when one needs to only watch five minutes of Finding Nemo to hear Albert Brooks show how real voice acting should be done. (I imagine his pricetag was significantly lower as well).
But the real reason that Pixar has become such a reliable hit-making brand is because of their stories and writing. Three of their films have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, an extraordinary feat for animated films, and a telling reminder of how wide an audience they reach. Ratatouille is another well written film for their canon, but begins to expose a formula that could become tiresome. Some of the themes covered include the importance of family, following your dream and accepting who you are, which are nothing new for fans of Pixar or any cartoons from the last 50 years, really. In addition, anyone who has ever heard of Syd Field will be able to recognize the act breaks and exact “turning points” for the characters and plot. The only reason such familiarity is tolerable, and in this case even enjoyable, is that it’s supported by bustling energy, bouncy humor and ambition. It’s a formula they have perfected and are able to release again and again like the personas that the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant perpetuated in film after film. At the same time, it’s clear that Pixar are trying to expand their horizons with each film and to really tackle human emotions rarely seen in animated form. Where The Incredibles tried to be a full-fledged comic book action movie that just happened to be animated, Ratatouille attempts to be a full-fledged romantic comedy that just happens to be about a rat. It’s a bold film at the center, with safe elements strapped by its side and in that respect, it’s what a big summer film should be.