This week Mac got me into a preview screening of Ratatouille. It’s really an outstanding movie.
It’s gotten to where you just expect the highest level of quality from Pixar movies, and Ratatouille exceeds that. At the technical level, of course, it’s perfect — Pixar movies always have much, much more going on behind the scenes than is immediately apparent, and the effects always serve the story. There are hairy characters that don’t really need to have every hair individually simulated, and segments that don’t really have to be set underwater with accurate water caustics and bubbles and realistic movement, but they do it just because they can.
That’s the case here, but still the effects work stands out: in Ratatouille, I was most impressed with the 2D animation. There are several scenes where book illustrations and billboards come to life and begin speaking, and the movement and lighting and coloration are perfect; they really do look like paintings brought to life, and make the surrounding three-dimensional characters seem even more realistic.
The animation is perfect throughout, which is remarkable considering I don’t really like the character design for any of the non-rat characters. They’re all fairly off-putting, with grotesquely exaggerated features and a skin texture that makes them look like PVC figures. (But still nowhere near as unappealing as Dreamworks characters). But that’s just a personal preference, and even I quickly forgot it because the characters all move completely convincingly.
It’s full of laugh-out-loud moments, and like all the best animation, many of those come from small details. Just the shape of the food critic Anton Ego’s writing room, and the image of his typewriter, were enough to get a laugh.
And it’s got my single favorite scene in any Pixar movie to date. It would’ve been a great movie without it, but that one scene in particular — when Ego first tastes the ratatouille — was just so brilliantly done, it knocked it completely out of the park.
So Ratatouille gets my unqualified recommendation: go see it as soon as you’re able.
I’ve got to mention the problem that kept distracting me throughout the movie. It was the same unsettling undertone that caused me to feel ultimately ambivalent about The Incredibles. (And for the record, I liked Ratatouille much more than The Incredibles, which is doubly surprising because the latter has superheroes and retro-future homes and a Bondian supervillians lair and fight scenes and explosions, while the former is about cartoon rats and French cooking).
What bugged me about The Incredibles was the sense of Objectivist preachiness that kept slipping in. The “Be true to yourself” message has been a staple of Disney movies for decades, but it’s usually of the innocuous (and vapid) “Follow your dream!” variety. I thought The Incredibles pounded home the darker variety, saying “I am an exceptional person and I deserve to be treated as such!”
The subtle aspects didn’t bother me — naming the characters “Parr,” setting Mr. Incredible up with a desk job — but when they veered into speeches — Mr. Incredible’s browbeating by his tiny middle-manager boss, and Dash’s browbeating by his nerdy teacher and the lecture about “just fitting in”, and especially the villain’s final speech — it just seemed like the screenwriter had some baggage he wanted to get rid of.
Ratatouille isn’t anywhere near as glaring — if you weren’t bothered by the parts I mentioned in The Incredibles, you probably won’t notice it at all in Ratatouille. But there are still a couple of moments of speechifying. Remy makes a speech to his dad about “moving forward” that seems more petulant than affirming. A book mentioned throughout the movie is called “Anyone Can Cook;” but ultimately, we’re reminded that anyone can try, but very few are going to be good at it. And even more blatant, the food critic begins his final review with a completely out-of-left-field dissertation about how critics are worthless and produce nothing of value, doing nothing but bringing down the ones truly capable of greatness.
Now, I’m willing to admit I’m sensitive when the topic of Objectivism comes up; it’s a completely alien and repugnant philosophy to me, and somehow I ended up with roommates all throughout college who were hard-line devotees of Ayn Rand. (Edited because that sounded overly harsh: they were perfectly fine people on every level; I just completely disagree with their philosophy.) So I could be reading more into it than what’s there.
But then I see stuff like this featurette about how Brad Bird is the Messiah, and I just feel kind of nauseated afterwards. One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is supposed to be “show, don’t tell.” Bird has shown us three times over, with The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille, that he’s an exceptionally talented filmmaker, capable of making astounding movies that genuinely raise the bar for everything that follows. So I’d just ask that he stop reminding us of that.