Monday, July 02, 2007

Pixar and the J Word

I saw Ratatouille tonight, and I (mostly) won't bore you with a specific review and plot details, because you can get excellent examples of all those things here and here and here, to name only three places. It was made by Brad Bird, who was responsible for The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. If you've seen either or both of those, you should have just stopped reading to go stand in line for a ticket. (For my money, The Iron Giant is a bona fide classic, and if you don't cry when it's over, you are stone-cold dead inside.)

Ratatouille was terrific, which has come to be expected from Pixar. The only movie I haven't seen from the studio is Cars, and the only one I've been disappointed in is A Bug's Life. Otherwise, Pixar turns out the most reliably high-quality product in Hollywood right now. And while I have more than a few friends who are mystified by my enthusiasm for these movies, I'm much more mystified by their reluctance to dive in and enjoy them, given the following strengths:

One friend complains about all the pop-culture references in "hip" animated movies these days, but she's thinking of Shrek and the like. Pixar's efforts are almost completely devoid of nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes -- there's slapstick for the kids, certainly, but that's no different than any other classic cartoon. They mostly rely on original storylines and jokes, and that's no small thing when we're offered The Dukes of Hazzard, not one but two Hulk movies (the second one is coming, starring Ed Norton, and it better not defile my favorite childhood comic quite the way Ang Lee's mess did), and Daddy Day Camp -- a preview of which I was unfortunate enough to see tonight. It stars Cuba Gooding, Jr., and is from "the studio that brought you Daddy Day Care." Shouldn't we bring this studio something in return, like a summons to appear at The Hague?

Consistency: Also, no small thing. Yes, I can (and do) patiently wait for new individual talents to pop up from time to time. I saw Bottle Rocket three or four times in the theater, and loved Rushmore, too. But ever since, Wes Anderson has turned into the world's most famous set designer and costumer, much more interested with how his movies look than how they read. Animation studios are machines, true, but a well-oiled machine is sometimes preferable to a wildly uneven auteur.

Beauty: I'm a sucker for hand-drawn animation, but the warmth Pixar manages to draw from computers is astonishing. And smart -- the humans in Ratatouille are believable but cartoonish, whereas the rats are just believable, putting the most important emotional component of the movie in the foreground. And some scenes are jaw-dropping, like the one that follows Remy (the rat protagonist) up from the sewer, scurrying along a series of pipes and terraces until he reaches a rooftop and we pan with him onto the glittering Paris skyline.

As others have remarked, Ratatouille features a food critic (voiced by Peter O'Toole), and two scenes involving him toward the end are great by any standard. One takes the form of a masterful flashback (which manages to both satirize and lovingly summarize what critics are really seeking) and the other a voiceover about the relationship between critics and artists. When I say intelligence, I mean moments like those, but also the overall choices of talent, like O'Toole and the comedian Patton Oswalt, who voices Remy -- not to mention the freedom given to a genius like Bird to orchestrate the whole thing.

I'm not an animation geek. I don't keep up on anime. I don't read comic books anymore. You couldn't get me to watch Shrek unless you showed it on a really long airplane ride. But good animation is one of my favorite things in the world. Like many people of my generation, I think my renewed love for it came from The Simpsons. That show, and Pixar's movies, and Tom and Jerry...they all contain, even alongside sarcasm and irony, another thing that can be difficult to find in real life, but is worth seeking out: Joy.


Blogger helen_boyd said...

yes, yes, & yes. betty & i left Ratatouille in about as good a mood as we left the English Beat concert the previous night, feeling like a little bit of world-weariness had been lifted.

1:30 PM  

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