A few days ago I watched Ratatouille again, both for the splendor of its animation — I love the riot of textures and metallic surfaces in the kitchen — and the generosity of its finale, in which the heroes triumph over the sepulchral food critic Anton Ego. I was also nudged by Patton Oswalt’s hilarious new record, My Weakness Is Strong, which includes a few routines about his voice work on the film, in which he played Remy the rodent hero.
But the finale written by Brad Bird — who, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles rates second only to Hayao Miyazaki in my book of great animators — is what always brings me back to Ratatouille. Any other animation shop would have devised a slapstick comeuppance for the critic and called it a day. In Ratatouille, Remy and his friends win him over by bringing him back to himself, and the story gives Ego not only that deeply touching flashback to his childhood, but the space to offer the film’s best line: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” A clip is at the bottom of this post. Consider the Spanish subtitles an educational plus.
After I saw Up — which is, despite my reservations about its second half, further proof that Pixar is the unchallenged standard-bearer for animated storytelling — I thought back to the recent corporate battle between John Lasseter’s shop and Disney, the corporate parent Pixar has creatively eclipsed.
Has there ever been a more crushing confession of failure than Disney’s threat, implicit in the renegotiation of its distribution deal with Pixar, to rush ahead with a second Toy Story sequel if Pixar went with another company? Disney was frankly admitting that its movies stink, its formulas are played out and its fund of creativity exhausted — and threatening to apply all those liabilities to Pixar’s most treasured property. “Work with us, or you’ll see just how badly we can suck.” Some negotiating tactic!
Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, David Denby makes some cogent points about the distinction between Pixar films and Disney:
Yes, there was the classic Disney group of animated features, released between 1937 and 1942, which included “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” and “Dumbo.” Children still love them, though this aging child doesn’t, really. The old Disney dispensation went roughly as follows: The material was largely based on fairy tales, with princes and queens and wicked stepmothers. Animals with long eyelashes engaged in gentle woodland conversation. There was much anthropomorphic charm, much sweet melodiousness, and, running through the sugar, a vinegary taste of fear, separation, punishment. The entire Bruno Bettelheim catalogue of psychological terrors churned below the surface. By now (for me, at least), the cloyingness, with its malevolent undertones, seems too calculated and heavy-spirited. But the recent Pixar films are something else. These movies are fashioned as much for adults as for kids. Set in the modern world, they are built around an exhilarating drive for achievement. A family of libertarian superheroes refuses to accept enforced mediocrity (“The Incredibles”). A talented rat wants to practice the art of cooking (“Ratatouille”). A robot saves the aesthetic remnants of a civilization ruined by excess and pollution (“WALL-E”). Some of the characters are isolated; they are all intelligent and strongly motivated. We’ve gone from psychological fable to moral fable, from fate to something like self-willed, even civic, passion.
There is much to like and dislike in the Disney catalogue, but my biggest beef with those canonical works — many of which I otherwise admire — was to give multiple generations of viewers the false idea that they actually know the story of Pinocchio, or the Little Mermaid, or Cinderella. You could argue that the original versions of those tales would be unpalatable to contemporary audience, and you might even be right. But the Disney operation’s habit of processing folk tales and forgotten classics into contemporary Cheez Whiz has been a problem for a lot of people, starting with Richard Schickel (whose 1968 book The Disney Version was the first serious attempt to examine the workings of Uncle Walt’s dream factory), and it played a big role in the company’s creative stagnation.
Right from the start, Pixar movies have turned their backs on stale fake-folktale plots and used contemporary materials with great freshness and ingenuity. Along with that “drive for achievement” Denby notes, Pixar movies also have a much broader emotional palette, including a readiness to weave adult fears and emotions into their kid-friendly storylines. The best line in the original Toy Story — “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!” — was taken even further in Toy Story 2, which quite explicitly addresses fears of mortality and the decision to make the most of your time regardless of what’s ahead. Apparently next year’s Toy Story 3 will continue that line of development, and I’m eager to see where they go with it.