A friend of mine believes that the July blockbuster Ratatouille is an allegory of Pixar’s own rise to fame within the Hollywood animation industry which has degraded since the death of Walt Disney. At first I was skeptical, but there are number of similarities between the Pixar staff’s ambitions and successes and the journey taken by the main character of their latest film. I’m not sure how many of these parallels have been placed there on purpose, but I believe that a much more interesting comparison can be made than a small studio achieving fame and fortune. First, a description of the plot:
The film opens on a televised cooking show which describes the life of Auguste Gusteau, the greatest chef in France, a food-loving visionary who enthusiastically revolutionized French cuisine with his book, Anyone Can Cook. Gusteau is also the idol and inspiration of Remy, a rat who is not content just to be a simple scavenger. Watching television and reading cookbooks has opened his eyes to a new world that is not particularly rat-friendly, much to the concern of his father, the patriarch of this rat family.
Sure enough, a human being wakes up to find our hero cooking in her kitchen, and her ensuing fury endangers the whole rat clan. In the face of imminent destruction, Remy’s father orders a full-scale evacuation, but Remy disobeys his father’s instructions and runs back to the kitchen to steal a copy of Anyone Can Cook. He loses his family, and winds up alone and starving on the streets of Paris where he stumbles across Gusteau’s once five-star restaurant, now greatly diminished in reputation since the great chef’s death.
Gusteau’s restaurant is now operated by a Michael Eisner-esque successor — an opportunist named Skinner — who uses Gusteau’s legacy to hustle microwave burritos and corn dogs. The kitchen also employs the clumsy and inept Linguini, a mere garbage boy until he and Remy join forces and begin to create culinary masterpieces together. In this film, rats can understand English but not speak it themselves, so a communication system must be devised to allow cooperation.
By hiding under Linguini’s hat, Remy controls his human puppet by tugging different hairs and can finally prepare the gourmet meals his heart desires. As a newly-discovered wunderkind chef, Linguini gains the respect and admiration of the other cooks. Unfortunately, their sudden combined success fills both them with selfish pride and they begin to fight over all the glory that is due the star of a successful kitchen. Without Linguini’s hat for cover Remy can’t cook in the open, and without the guidance of Remy, Linguini can’t cook at all, so their squabbling threatens the success of the entire restaurant, just as the Paris food critics have begun to take an interest in it again.
Meanwhile, the jealous Skinner has begun to suspect that Linguini is not all what he seems and is desperate to eliminate this threat to his superiority in the kitchen. Further complications arise as the appallingly unambitious Linguini falls in love with one of the other cooks, and Remy is discovered by his family who have been looking for him. Remy’s father wants him to rejoin the clan and is horrified that his son is working with humans. Conflicts continue to mount until the climax of the film, which I found to be exciting, but a little unsatisfying.
Throughout the film, the audiences is taught about the intricacies of gourmet cooking, the workings of the Michelin star system that governs French restaurants (sort of), and the hierarchy of professional kitchens — all without stopping the story or boring the audience. Complex supporting characters are introduced and described effortlessly, and the sort of exposition that usually bogs a film down with dry explanation is handled with great skill and woven carefully into the structure of the plot. However, the cheap trick of using an inner monologue weakens the overall film, and it is this over-reliance on voice-over that is the main weakness of the ending.
In every technical way this film excels. The animation is truly superior, containing some of the best human animation Pixar has produced to date, and the rats are expressive, flexible, and fun to watch. The fur, hair and cloth effects are excellent, and although they are far more complex simulations than we saw in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, they are not much more impressive. The great technical breakthrough of this film is in the rendering of the food; the delicate translucency of onions and celery, the fluid layers of oil and vinegar dressing, and the mixing of thick sauces and creamy batters. It is truly amazing... but perhaps only to other computer animators, like myself.
The lighting is also a new high point for a Pixar film, and the camera work is stunning. Brad Bird’s direction, composition, and pacing has only improved since The Incredibles. The sound design is excellent, Michael Giacchino’s second Pixar score is fanciful and lively, and the voice acting is wonderful. A highlight is Peter O’Toole’s role as the most interesting and ominous food critic ever shown on film who is possibly meant as a little dig at movie critics as well.
However, with the exception of last year’s Cars, I thought this was Pixar’s weakest film. The plot’s external elements and minor characters are handled with brilliance and great originality, but its heart is a rancid cliche.
Films that revolve around a son or daughter’s desire to escape from overbearing parental authority and are merely seeking independence are a dime a dozen. Films that feature the single-minded pursuit of a selfish dream for that dream’s own sake as a moral theme are extremely overdone. Films that create either tension or comedy by incessant bickering between parents and children are currently the norm.
Remy the rat doesn’t experience much character growth in this film; after a few adventures, we find that his environment and family have just arbitrarily changed to suit him. He doesn’t have to work or even apply himself to achieve his inexplicable cooking skills.
Ratatouille’s preparation, seasoning, garnish, and presentation are almost flawless. Unfortunately, it has been made from sub-par ingredients, which is, sadly, becoming a trend in Pixar’s recent releases. This film was started by Jan Pinkava, apparently based on Richard Lawson’s Ben and Me and Eve Titus’s Anatole, but then changed hands mid-production to the leadership of Brad Bird, which may account for most of its inconsistencies and would explain how such a substandard story structure could be brought to the screen so artfully.
These convoluted and fragmented production structures are standard procedure in most Hollywood studios, but Pixar has built its reputation on careful story planning and films that reflect great unity of purpose and solid construction. Getting back to the analogies between Pixar, Disney, and Remy the rat, a few things should be noted. Firstly, Pixar’s top men are not merely the latest acquisition of the massive Walt Disney Corporation — they are the heirs apparent to Walt Disney himself, and careful students of his best work.
In the same way that Walt Disney invented the best techniques and much of technology of 2D animation, and through years of production from his shorts to his features defined and polished the art of animation and built it into a lucrative industry, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter have built 3D animation’s industry from the ground up with Pixar. In their early days as a division of George Lucas’s effects studio ILM, they built the hardware and software that produced the first computer animation ever put on film. Later, as an independent company, their short films helped sell software but also captured the imaginations of other animators and laid the foundations for Toy Story.
However, like Gusteau’s name in the film, the Walt Disney brand is now used to sell cheap toys, endless direct-to-video sequels, crude television programs, and abysmal music. At the moment, Pixar is poised to either rejuvenate the principles and standards that Disney once represented or be absorbed and driven down the same path of uninspired and uninspiring films. Like Remy, they have achieved great success, seemingly overnight, and now tend be more arrogant about upcoming projects then they were in their early days and seem to be spending less time on story development.
With the death of Joe Ranft, Pixar’s story department lost a vital member, and with more films in simultaneous production than before, the remaining team is split between several projects. I believe that they must refocus themselves on making story the main goal and collaborating, like Linguini and Remy, to perfect every scene. With full financial support from Disney Corp., the best software development team in the business, and a deservedly glowing reputation, they are no longer bound by the limitations of budgets, technology, or even audience approval, and could be excused for resting on their laurels for a film or two.
But to continue to create great films in the future they need to stick together and keep working through story structure. Despite Ratatouille’s weak foundational plot and whiny, unmotivated characters, it contains many high points, including what is probably the best-written and best-executed scene in any Pixar film to date. These flashes of brilliance show that the Pixar team can easily continue to make great films, as long as they can keep from being split up, diluted, or lulled into a false sense of security or accomplishment where they might lose sight of their original goals and their potential for truly great storytelling.
If they understand that perfect sauces can’t save an undercooked dish and focus on the basics, their next films will be excellent, but if they spread themselves too thin and fall into the trap of valuing style over substance, their future projects will slip slowly into mediocrity. As much as I hope they can climb from strength to strength, I am sure that both their successes and failures will be instructive. All filmmakers can and should learn from Pixar’s many different examples, and what they do next should teach a very valuable lesson.