Movies

Mickey Shrugged

Photo from Sprachcaffe InternationalThis 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.

But…

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.

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9 thoughts on “Mickey Shrugged

  1. Mac says:

    I mentioned this when we saw Ratatouille, but it’s worth restating: The Incredibles cannot be an objectivist film, because it is funny, and the one requirement for being a Randian is to have absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever.

    As for Ratatouille, I really liked Alton’s speech about being a critic. (SPOILER WARNING FOR REST OF POST) I think you missed the nuance of it: it’s not at all out of left field, it’s establishing the reason for Alton’s transformation. What he describes at the beginning of the piece isn’t criticism, it’s BAD criticism, and it’s an act of self-excoriation that he begins his review that way. A bad critic is only interested in tearing people down, and that’s who Alton was at the beginning of the film. But a critic’s real duty is not to knock people down, but to buoy them up, to get out and tell the world, “Look! Look at the amazing things this person has done! Celebrate this person!” Remy’s food has transformed Alton entirely, and the introduction to his review establishes this, and distances him from his previous body of criticism.

    The message I took away from the, “Anybody can Cook!” mantra was not, “You can do anything if you just try hard enough,” which is, let’s face it, a blatant lie. Not everyone can be good at everything. There is such a thing as natural talent, although it’s not as rare as some would like to think, and it’s not enough on it’s own to succeed. Remy’s brother is never going to be a great cook, but it’s not because of what he is, but who he is. It is assumed that Remy can’t be a cook because he’s a rat. It is assumed that Collette can’t be a cook because she’s a woman. It is assumed that Linguini MUST be a cook, because he’s Gusteau’s son. None of these assumptions are true, and that’s the movie’s message. Alton’s review ended with a line that went something like, “Not anyone can be a cook, but…” I forget how he finished it, but I remember thinking what the next part should have been: “Not anyone can be a cook, but a cook could be anyone.”

    Anyway, what kept pulling me out of the movie was the thought, “Remy’s a rat. No matter what happens in the film, he’s going to be dead in a year or so.” Also, how the hell does Linguini comb his hair without demolishing his apartment?

  2. But a critic’s real duty is not to knock people down, but to buoy them up, to get out and tell the world, “Look! Look at the amazing things this person has done! Celebrate this person!”

    Saying that a critic’s only function is to encourage the genuinely talented is exactly the kind of statement I’m objecting (no pun intended) to. Ideally, a critic does what he is good at, which is analyzing the work of another person doing what that person is good at. In short: critics don’t exist solely to tell Brad Bird how great he is.

    Obviously, Ego’s character was set up to be the ultimate self-aggrandizing bad critic, and that didn’t bug me; I thought it was funny. But at the end of the movie (SPOILER, OBVIOUSLY):he hasn’t just renounced the bad criticism of his past; he completely abandoned his old life and now exists solely to enjoy the genius of Remy the chef. Yes, it’s a cartoon, and yes it’s a comically exaggerated situation, but the end result is the same: the world would be better off if you’d just stop criticizing and be satisfied with acknowledging how great I am — I mean, Remy is.

    Alton’s review ended with a line that went something like, “Not anyone can be a cook, but…” I forget how he finished it, but I remember thinking what the next part should have been: “Not anyone can be a cook, but a cook could be anyone.”

    I may be misremembering it, but I thought they explicitly said “Not anyone can be a cook, but a cook could be anyone” at some point. That is the entire point of using that book title, and is why the movie keeps going back to it, and I got that fine.

    My only problem with it is that it’s a weirdly non-affirming thing to emphasize in a movie with Ratatouille‘s tone. It’d be like having Cinderella end with a voiceover saying, “And don’t forget that unlike Cinderella, you, Katie Simpson of Dubuque, Iowa, will never, ever be a princess.” Rationally, it’s true that almost all of us will fail at most of the things we try to do. But it’s not necessary to emphasize that, in order to say “don’t judge people’s abilities based on their appearances.”

  3. Mac says:

    Not sure how to do qoutes, here, so:

    “Obviously, Ego’s character was set up to be the ultimate self-aggrandizing bad critic, and that didn’t bug me; I thought it was funny. But at the end of the movie (SPOILER, OBVIOUSLY):he hasn’t just renounced the bad criticism of his past; he completely abandoned his old life and now exists solely to enjoy the genius of Remy the chef. Yes, it’s a cartoon, and yes it’s a comically exaggerated situation, but the end result is the same: the world would be better off if you’d just stop criticizing and be satisfied with acknowledging how great I am — I mean, Remy is.”

    Alton didn’t decide to stop being a critic, though. His glowing review of Remy’s cooking destroys his reputation, forcing him into retirement. The denoument makes it clear that he doesn’t mind being retired, but the message isn’t “Critics should just shut up.” Rather, it shows that critics have as much responsibility to stick their necks out for their craft as artists do.

    Also, I think you’re being unfair to Brad Bird by casting this as a sort of hissy fit over people criticizing his movies. If he’d been a struggling or controversial film maker, I could see it, but his films have received almost universal praise from film critics. He already has critics acknowledging how great he is: it doesn’t seem likely that he’d feel the need to make that a theme in one of his movies. After Iron Giant, I could see him maybe ranting about how the PUBLIC doesn’t appreciate cinematic genius, but as far as I can tell, he’s always been the critic’s darling.

  4. And yet he begins the conclusion of the story with a lengthy speech condemning criticism — not just his criticism, or bad criticism, but criticism in general. And he’s a caricature, and his last name is Ego. I never said he’s meant to represent movie critics; he’s meant to represent anyone who would criticize the work of talented people. Just as the Wallace Shawn-voiced character in The Incredibles isn’t a scathing indictment of the insurance industry, but a parody of officious middle management types and bureaucrats, those who try to stifle the talents of others.

    It’s really not that difficult to see the allegory there. It’s not exactly subtle; in fact, it’s fairly juvenile, which is exactly why it bugs me so much. Everything else in these movies is done at such an outstanding level of technical and creative achievement, that the villains just come across as amateurish axe-grinding.

    I said it was my interpretation, and admitted several times over I could be reading too much into it, or jumping to conclusions. But now, it’s all I can see. The problems with the studio’s handling of The Iron Giant are pretty well known. And where that movie dealt with universal themes, the ones that followed are filled with petty, jealous caricatures who try to bring down the work of the more gifted heroes.

    And to do quotes on here, surround it with “<blockquote> </blockquote>”. If I ever get around to making another round of improvements on the site, I’ll add an easier way to do it.

  5. Kid from south says:

    I saw it today, I noticed the correlations between The Fountainhead and Anthem immediately. I began seeing the main character as a Howard Roark, who only cared about his work, I saw the villains well put out as well. The movie seems to emphasize the value of the individual over all else, which is pretty objectivist, the evil collectives, the enlightenment of knowlege, I just remembered Anthem and sighed, and realized that a fourteen year old kid (Me) was the only person who realized Ayn Rand had found her own personal philosophical heir in Remy. It was a good movie, had good themes, and so on.

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