Friday, June 29, 2007

Too many rats in the kitchen

I like Pixar. I’m not what you’d call a huge fan. Although all of their movies have been good, Cars is the only one I consider great. But I’m not a kid. Kids love them all.

It had to happen eventually. Ratatouille is a bomb, at least from a kid's perspective. It reminded me of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney had a run of great kids movies starting with Little Mermaid on through Beauty and the Beast and Lion King. But then I took my daughter to Hunchback on opening weekend and I’ll never forget the sounds in the theater when the film ended. Children were crying. Literally. They were crying. Very bad sign for a kid's movie.

It wasn’t that bad for Ratatouille, but my kid had trouble staying awake, which is bad enough. Children yawning is not as bad as children crying, but still, not a good sign.

As an adult, I liked Ratatouille, but then I liked Hunchback as well. Some of the animation in Hunchback was some of the best ever. In that case the animation drew its strength from its source. The problem with Hunchback was that the oafs at Disney tried to graft their trademarked silly sidekicks onto a powerful story about religious hypocrisy and repressed, along with a bit of the old raw, sexuality. Ratatouille, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from the Disney sidekick syndrome. Of course its provenance is hardly Victor Hugo, but it's still a good story.

Adults, for the most part, will like Ratatouille so I trust it will do okay at the box office even though the kids won't be dying to see it again and again. But it has a few things working against it. The thought of rats in the kitchen -- and touching food -- causes a visceral disgust and actually seeing it so well-depicted on screen is much worse, even shocking at first. And the culture nannies and demagogues will be upset that people -- gasp -- drink wine and even get drunk in front of the kiddies and that it is set in France and that the French are not mercilessly ridiculed. In these ridiculous times, I'm surprised it pulled off a G rating. Disney must have bribed the Guardians of Our Morals, or at least key Republicans. It probably doesn't cost that much. Chump change in every sense of the phrase.

More on the positive side, the technical aspects of the film, both visual and as storytelling, are flawless. Just about every frame is a marvel. The story arc is classic. The voice acting is very well done (you don't really notice the "acting"). The emotional denouement satisfying.

The character arc, however, is a bit out-of-the-ordinary for a well-told story, particularly in a kids tale. In a normal story, the main character has a flaw which he or she recognizes and corrects throughout the course of the narrative. Cars, is a perfect example of this classic character arc. In Ratatouille the main character has a trait that is perceived as a flaw by those around him, but proves to be a special gift. It is the secondary characters who change. The main character essentially stays the same. His only discovery, if you can call it that, is that yes, he really is special. That's about all the secondary characters discover as well. That plus the fact that they are merely ordinary.

The Incredibles told the exact same story as Ratatouille, which is not surprising since the same person, Brad Bird, wrote them both. Everyone is not created equal. Some people are more special than others. Each Bird movie has its own catchphrase to drive home the point. For The Incredibles, it was "If everyone is special, then no one is." For Ratatouille, the catchphrase is "Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere," which at least makes sense. I thought The Incredibles came off with a whiff of Libertarian propaganda since the catchphrase was pretty much lifted from Ayn Rand and stood out as such in the movie. The "message" was handled much better in Ratatouille. It worked well within the context of the story.

Still, what was essentially the same story was handled much better in Cars, which managed to tell a far more nuanced version without the show stopping (in a bad way) effect of a catchphrase.

Cars, too, is about someone with special talents and grand ambitions and the ways in which he and those around him come to terms with those talents and ambitions. The closest thing to a catchphrase in Cars it is that the MacGuffin (the thing that everyone is after) is just an empty cup. Just the opposite of Bird's message that everyone can't be special.

Take another look at the illustration above. Take a long look. Go ahead, the last three paragraphs can wait.

See what I mean?

Again, I enjoyed Ratatouille. Sure, it could have been better, but it's a good story well-told as is. There's nothing inherently wrong with a story in which the individual triumphs over the community. Real life, as we know, is often like that. I just don't think it works that well for children.

All of the reviews I've seen, excepting my own, are incredibly positive. I thought A.O. Scott in the Times did the best job. His review made me like Ratatouille even more than I did after seeing it, but when you examine his reasoning, the review just reinforces my point that it’s not a good kids movie, not a great one anyway.