Disney has a grand tradition of death, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it, but what makes Up more special than Bambi, or even The Lion King, is how carefully it follows the grieving process. Everyone focuses on the silent montage at the start, which compresses a couple’s entire life together into four wordless minutes. It’s as fine a piece of cinema as you’ll ever see, and it’s reputation is well earned. But as in life, it’s not the death itself that’s really important – it’s what comes after. And after, Up picks up with Carl, an old man, living alone. The brilliance of that montage is in the way it echoes throughout, and as Carl navigates his house, you begin to notice the hooks that have been set in your heart – the mailbox, the bottle-lid badge, the chairs – and that will be tugged mercilessly throughout. In my experience that’s more or less how it happens in life, just a little messier. You encounter innocuous little cues with rough edges that catch in your chest. I admire the ruthless efficiency with which Up can bring me to my knees: a single shot of an inanimate object, a couple of notes of Giacchino’s score. But from what I’ve said so far, it doesn’t sound very fun, does it? What makes me love Up is the contrast. After all, there aren’t many in-depth examinations of the grieving process that can also shift thousands of stuffed toys, are there? The film only wallows in this loneliness for a short time, before Carl escapes, into the sky, and towards Paradise Falls. Introducing the rest of Carl’s party – Russell the persistent ‘Wilderness Explorer’ boy scout, Kevin the giant bird, Dug the talking dog – Up turns into something as simple and likeable as any Pixar film. But it doesn’t abandon that emotional core. All the conflicts are caught up in one another – Carl’s craving for adventure, as a younger man, resurfaces after he can’t have children; Russell’s largely absent father isn’t there to do his Wilderness Explorer activities with him; Kevin, the only character to have a full family, is separated from them. (Incidentally, I think you could make an argument for the characters representing Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, particularly the midlife crisis of generativity vs stagnation.) And, like all the best baddies, Charles Muntz is presents Carl from a different perspective – his airship is a much more literal museum, full of the bones of mythical creatures he hunted, as Carl’s floating house, but both are just as preoccupied with the past and with death. And of course, the film never shies away from lingering, for just one moment, on one of those mementoes. Ultimately, though, life goes on, and all the grief sits just underneath the surface, the engine which drives all the thrilling adventure stuff. The world doesn’t suddenly turn black, beauty and humour still exist, and that allows Dug to exist – thank God – and Dug, in turn, allows Up to work. There aren’t many visual metaphors stronger than that house rising into Sega-blue skies, tugged upwards by a multi-coloured cloud of balloons. There are few more crushing than the half-burned house, heavier than the remains of balloons can carry, scraping along the rough earth as Carl drags it, alone, before grinding to a halt. Up follows the same emotional waveform as most Pixar films, with the hero starting low, rising steadily to a high, then being brought down by the consequences of that rise, only to get over what brought them low in the first place and rise triumphantly. Of course, that also describes most human experience, including grieving for a loved one. I’ve made a big deal in the past about how the shape of Up could be emotionally educational, the implication being, for children. I’m going to come up front and say what I really mean is, for me. A while back, I lost my Nan; she was a wonderful and vital woman, and… frankly I lack the vocabulary to talk about this kind of stuff; I haven’t had to deal with death, really, since I was young. I suspect I’m not good at it. Catharsis is one of art’s greatest virtues; Up provides a safe way to experience, and re-experience, difficult emotions in a controlled environment. It gave me a framework for understanding, and a context to place it in. Essentially, Up takes everything that’s bundled up in grief, and turns it into a story. I’m used to stories.
Here were are again: ‘Alex loves Pixar films’. It’s well-trodden ground at this point, yes, I’m predictable, I know, I’m sorry. But the beauty of the studio’s best – Ratatouille, Wall.E, Monsters Inc – is that they’re very different films, and The Incredibles is possibly the best example of that. Being obvious: it was the first Pixar film to thrust human characters into the spotlight, rather than featuring animals/toys/monsters/beautifully-animated-inanimate-objects. Which is probably as much to do with technology as anything else – look at Andy and Sid in the first Toy Story, and compare them with the Parrs here. But that’s not important, because the legacy The Incredibles is best examined alongside isn’t that of Pixar; it’s superhero films, And this is, by a very long way (by at least 43 spots, I guess) my favourite superhero film. There’s just so much it gets right about ‘supers’, as the film calls them, on screen. First of all, those powers. It cherry-picks the very best – using, more or less, the Fantastic Four template of stretchy one, invisible one, strong punchy one, but switching out fiery one for speedy one. If you ignore flying, it’s pretty much the Platonic template for iconic super-powers. And then it shows them in such brilliant ways: with an opening action scene that shows Mr Incredible and Elasti-Girl in the field, establishing what kind of feats they’re capable of quickly and easily. But then we cut forward 15 years, and see Mr and Mrs Incredible – Bob and Helen – in a more domestic setting, where powers are implemented casually: a crushed door handle, splitting up a fight between the kids, a car lifted over the head (possibly the strongest single image of superherodom in existence, stretching all the way back to the cover of Action Comics #1) in frustration. The kids: Dash (speedster) and Violet (invisi-force-fielder). Their powers are teased in this setting, and only unleashed in the final third of the film. It’s a family film in all senses. The super-powered setting just exaggerate a more mundane reality. Bob’s secret crime-fighting trips are a mid-life crisis played out on a bigger scale; something that’s never more obvious than in Helen’s quiet fears that he’s having an affair.But it’s designed to play to the whole family too. So it’s bright and it goes pow! in all the right places. Action is pretty much constant, woven seamlessly in amongst jokes playing to both ends of the familial spectrum. Most importantly, it’s got that indefinable Disney quality, of pure sweetness. No film makes me smile more, so consistently brings a big goofy smile to my face. The ridiculous design of the throwaway characters – Bob’s boss Mr. Huph; Edna Mode, fashion designer to the super-able. The beauty of the volcano lair setting. Just the way the superheroes move: take the setpiece where Mrs Incredible gets her extended limbs stuck in a series of automatic doors as she tries to take out a load of henchmen; it’s a silly, funny extrapolation of her Elasti-powers, but it’s genuinely thrilling too, and when she takes the bad guys down, it’s easily as cool as the greatest feat of strength Mr Incredible is able to summon. Most of all, though, it’s the relationships between the family members. It’s touching is what it is. This is a film, though, that understands that to have that Disney sweetness, to have it ring true without turning to cloying saccharine, you need danger, threat; grown up things. And so that mid-life crisis writ large is a threat to the marriage, to the stabilising centre of the family. It’s a truism that cartoonier characters are easier to relate to, more universal, and that would explain how easily it attaches you to these characters. And this is where we come back to the Pixar legacy. That moment that catches in your throat, a bittersweet trademark. Here, for me, it’s the scene where Mr Incredible thinks he’s lost his family, that the supervillain has killed them. It’s not even a fake-out; the viewer knows they’re fine, but still… It gets me choked up every time. (For me, as I suspect for many people, family and Disney/Pixar films are inseparable. That Christmas of drunkenly tearing up on the sofa to Finding Nemo; cinema trips… my sister even reads the odd thing I write if it’s about animation.) And then it builds on top of that, finds every permutation of cinematic cake it can think and simultaenously both has and eats it. The James Bond set design and smooth cool of Mr Incredible’s secret life, against the comedy of his out-of-shape chubbiness as he gets stuck in a pod launcher. He can be the butt of a joke without detracting from his iconic hero moments. Big action setpieces with the kind of spectacle that wouldn’t be possible in live action without being plastered in ugly CG, but with the intimacy and investment I celebrated in Die Hard. It’s as prismatic as any modern superhero comic. This means it gets a bit muddled if you look too deeply at what it’s saying. Is it wrong for Bob to shirk responsibility for cheap thrills and temptations (he’s punished, his family are put in danger) or is he realising his true potential (it brings the family together, as a team)? Which brings us sort of neatly to the elephant in the room. What Christian “Solario” Otholm refers to as “an appalling moral to put in a children’s film”. The idea that no-one should try to go beyond the limits they were born with. The villains (Bomb Voyage, Syndrome, Underminer) are all powered by technology. There’s a moment where Mrs Incredible tells Violet that heroism is “in her blood”, and looked at through this filter it’s wince-inducing. I spent much of my planning time for this article trying to work out a counter-argument. And I can’t. It’s a completely fair reading of the film. Such are the dangers of being such an all-inclusive film […]
As someone who has long taken issue with the way certain childrens’ books (hint: rhymes with Larry Frotter) are not just acceptable but celebrated reading material for grownups, my love of kids’ films is maybe worth a little examination. They have to dumb down to the same common-denominator level, surely, to be understood by even the littlest of the littl’uns? And, if you’d put this question to me in person, I’d likely spend a lot of time humming and aahing, looking at my shuffling feet, before making a hurried mumble of apology (something about explosive diarrhea?) and fleeing from the room. But here we are on the internet, where I am master, and have infinite time to consider my answer. Which is (now) this: as a passive medium, cinema doesn’t have a prerequisite ‘you must be this tall to enjoy’ barrier to enjoyment. In a children’s book, even one aimed at an audience older than Monsters Inc, the level of vocabulary and technique available to the author is limited by the reader’s understanding. The same logic applies to game for children, which have to be reasonably simple to interact with. Pixar are able to bring all sorts to complex cinematic technique to bear. Just look at the comedy outtakes that run over the credits: try something like that in a book, and the extra layer of fictional reality introduced could be alienating. But in Monsters Inc, that just slips over you without being an issue, even when it slips back into the original reality with Mike & Sully’s ‘Put That Thing Back Or So Help Me’ musical. Or… well, it could be that I just don’t really dig on Harry Potter (I’ve tactfully avoided making any reference to Pullman’s Dark Materials stuff or my lack of interest in the HP films, both of which would totally sink my argument) whereas Monsters Inc is an undeniably brilliant film, equally capable of making me laugh, cry, go awhhhh, marvel at its prettiness, get caught in the action, cry again, and totally not care about any kinds of adult/child divides. But, shhh. That would totally invalidate this post, wouldn’t it?
Okay, a rare bit of cheating here at Alex-Spencer.co.uk today. Today is Ratatouille‘s turn at FFoF, and I wrote a piece on it just over a year ago. I’ve not got much more to say, and I was quite pleased with it, so here’s a slightly edited version of that: In many ways, Ratatouille is the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film’s confused aims and mixed success. It’s not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up. Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood. Even in my own memory – having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist – the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance. And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in Great Art. I’ll break this down…. Remy – the film’s hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat – is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion. Yet, he remains tied down by his roots. Remy is of course a rat: the natural enemy of the cooking industry. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn’t help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and ‘us vs them’ has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that’s the one that – significantly, perhaps – stood out to me. Though, as Remy’s hero proclaims throughout: “anyone can cook”, regardless of who they are. But Remy’s family don’t understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy’s interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him. Early on, by shooting a shotgun at him. So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol’ Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.Our secondary hero, the gangly ginger human Linguini, is just a proxy for Remy’s ability. For the purposes of the film’s metaphor, he is just another part of the artist: the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental. In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau’s successful recipes. It is for this that Anton Ego, secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant as “tourist fare.” Ego vs. Remy is the film’s great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, “thin for someone who likes food.” There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?The moment of Ego’s rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic’s roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille: “a peasant’s dish”. The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always a handy piece of short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed. And, of course the world can’t take the revelation that this is a kitchen run by rats. After all, there is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder… Ahahaha. Maybe I am putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids’ film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions: I’m Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven’t even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with… well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station. Good. At least I’m not the embittered critic. I’m a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego. …A full year closer than when I originally wrote this, though.
I had a list of dreams for 2011 that I made in the early months of this year. Amongst them were making some money whilst dressed in my bunny onesie, and writing for the Escapist, a games-orientated website showing the breadth and quality that games writing can, and should, consist of… So that’s two birds with one stone, then. Disney-Colo(u)red Death is me taking a look at Bambi, The Lion King and Up and their tear-the-still-beating-heart-from-your-chest moments, and then applying any patterns I spot to the world of videogames. The title is theirs, not mine (which were all as long and unwieldy as emo album track titles), and much better for it. It’s also my first ever piece of professional journalism. As first times go, it could be a lot, lot worse.
There’s a point, about ten minutes into Wall-E, where you begin to suspect that Pixar are just showing off. The most successful producer of kids’ films at that moment, and their new film opens with sweeping shots across an abandoned Earth, then cityscapes devoid of life and dominated by towers of compacted waste. A lengthy opening sequences featuring almost no speech, and soundtracked by songs from a 50 year old musical. The only dialogue is delivered by a live-action Fred Willard from the past, with animation representing the present. The protagonist himself is mute. His facial features consist entirely of a pair of shuttered binoculars.…And this is Pixar, so of course it works perfectly.With tilts of those binoculars and raising of the shutters, Wall-E is one of the most expressive characters in … I was going to say in animation, but unless you’ve got Robert Downey Jr’s face, it’s probably fair to say in cinema. The bleak future is presented effortlesslyWhen considering any Pixar film, considering the company that produced it seems inevitable. It’s a stop we’re going to be making another few times before this is done, so I’ll get all that out of the way now:The Pixar legacy is the most casual miracle in modern pop-culture. They’ve been casually throwing out classics that are accessible to anyone and rewatchable for years. You know that, of course. But with the lineage potentially in danger this very summer, it’s worth baldly stating just how magical this is. It’s been like a second Christmas, an event as dependably annual and – probably more dependable, in fact. I can guarantee you’ve had a disappointing Christmas more recently than you’ve seen a disappointing Pixar film (…2006, probably).That Wall-E doesn’t capture the beginning’s mad spirit, the filmmaker-let-loose feeling, again in the second half is a weakness. But that’s because it’s so easy to take for granted the classic Pixar story that’s left once the ambition of the opening has been jettisoned.What’s left is hardly charmless or simplistic. It’s a sweet love story between two mostly mute robots, with a satirical backdrop, that also manages to be a thrilling adventure story. Then there’s the beautiful contrast between the analogue Wall-E and the other digital technology: it’s all a bit ‘I’m a Mac’/‘I’m a PC’. And then that translates into plot’s story of liberation and revolution, with people – and robots – exploring beyond the narrow glowing single path set out for them. All that in the less ambitious half of the film, the half that’s generally considered weaker.It should be surprising. But it’s done so casually, so easily, that you just accept it. After all, this is Pixar.
Toy Story 3 It’s been a remarkably strong few months in the cinema. I started to suspect that as I emerged from Toy Story, for my money the strongest entry in the series and quite possibly a goodbye to Pixar as we know it. (I never exercised my theory in the below review, but looking at the schedule – Cars 2 next, then splintering off into a mix of unnecessary sequelitis, unpromising fantasy fiilms and even live-action – it seems like the beloved company is undergoing something of a sea change, and that we stood, in the brief moment between Up and this, at their high watermark. It feels like that beautiful ‘wave speech’ from Fear & Loathing.) “Because Pixar have discovered the magical formula, now. The film consistently pulls on a visceral emotional response. Sometimes that’s laughter, or warm nostalgia. Sometimes it’s pure, big, colourful spectacle. Often it’s trying to make you cry.” The review is the second part of a double-feature. Keeping the original confusion alive, it’s probably best to read the Inception half first. Inception Inception consumed the public consciousness for a good month or so. It’s settled down now, but I suspect, if picked at, those wounds will prove easy to reopen. I talked about it at length, because it’s Inception and that’s just what you do, here. “It’s a film about films, just in the sense that it’s such a shining example of a film that understands films. Inception’s basic premise, and the early reveals, are based around the most obvious narrative cliche in the world: …and it was all a dream. The twist becomes not oh it was all a dream but rather, already knowing that’s in the deck, will they play that card? And where?” I would have liked to see it twice, in this year of double-dip cinema (Scott Pilgrim and Toy Story so far, undoubtedly going to see The Social Network again). My opinions never got tested, and I missed the chance to wail along with that score. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World The film I had to see twice: “The hits that it lands are truly triumphant, though. The thing that struck me most second time was the music. It’s brilliant, and brilliantly used, and Edgar Wright’s description of the film as a musical with punches rings really true.” It didn’t occur to me either time, but Scott Pilgrim is a pop-song of a film. Catchy bits get stuck in your head. It doesn’t necessarily make 100% sense, but when it catches you, and you’re dancing frantically in the moment, it’s all you need. And like any pop song, it needs to be heard more than once. Otherwise how would you know when to dance? The Expendables See, here’s the problem with The Expendables: I wanted it to be one thing, though I knew it would never be that thing. Given its unique selling point is ‘we have all the action stars’, I hoped for a reflection on the genre and its heroes. Whenever the film lagged (and during a lot of the dialogue-heavy segments, or the exposition stuff, it really lagged), I couldn’t help but figure out how that film would work. Jason Statham the representative of the Modern Action Hero, against the ridiculous colossi of Stallone & Schwarzenegger? Each character an amalgam of the characters that actor had played? I wanted something simultaenously less serious and more intelligent. A post-modern wink of an action film. What I got instead, though, was occasional brilliance. A feeling augmented by the company and mindset I saw it in : we were the people laughing hardest in the cinema, perhaps the only people. The violence is ridiculous, and set up like a well-told, but silly joke. The opening scene drags on too long, trying to pile on tension and real-world allusions. And then, BAM, the first shot is fired and a man is ripped in half, his torso flying across the screen followed by flowing red ribbons. The four of us laughed uncontrollable squealing, ribcage-rattling laughs. Crap dialogue. Rubbish attempts at emotion. Ultra-violence. It was the best comedy I’ve seen this year. When the lights went up, a couple sat in front of us turned round and smiled what I think was a sincere smile. The film that could have been… this was our only shot at it. And that beautiful, strange film can never exist. But I did get to see a man take another man’s head off with a throwing knife. Shrek Forever After Provider of undoubtedly the biggest face-palm moment of my blogging year, when I accidentally linked to the review in my Summer Without Games article (the most popular post this humble website’s ever had) instead of the intended Mario Galaxy, presumably confusing the hell out of hundreds of readers. Sorry guys! “Being honest, I didn’t really want to like Shrek Forever After, or Shrek The Final Chapter, or whatever the hell it’s calling itself. I’d heard bad things; I automatically mistrust franchises that stretch beyond trilogies, and I oppose Dreamworks’ animated films on principle. In return, Shrek did its very best to make this easy for me.” That’s how the review in question starts. The rest is here. Panique au Village Or, if I’m being a little less precious, A Town Called Panic. Absolutely the purest cinema experience I’ve had all year. Decided arbitrarily to go and see it based on a convenient showing time and use of the words ‘parachuting cows’ in the synopsis. It didn’t fail to live up to that promise. Full of wonky DIY inventiveness, the film is the greatest fountain of ideas I’ve experienced since Mario Galaxy 2. It’s lovingly, obviously crafted in that Aardman way: you can almost see the hands moving the little plastic indians and animals around the screen. The film’s a PG but I couldn’t help but feel like a naughty child who’d snuck into a grown-up’s screening: not quite knowing what they were seeing, but loving every […]
I went to see two films in twenty-four hours. For lazy me, this is a momentous occasion. The second of these films, chronologically, was Inception. I talked about that first. Don’t ask me why. The first was Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 Before, I spoke about wanting an empty cinema, void of distractions, for watching my films. The hypothesis was this: people whisper and suck you out of immersion. It can be a good thing: I’ve mentioned how Four Lions seemed, I suspect, funnier because of the amount (and mood) of people in that screening. But, for good or bad, it’s pretty much undeniable: the audience changes the film. Pixar films are the exception to this rule (the problem becoming inverted: the oh God don’t cry that would be too embarrassing don’t cry effect). Where Inception was difficult to engage with emotionally, being distracted from Toy Story was near-impossible. I could see Dom checking his watch to my left. I knew we were cutting it tight with our parking ticket. I just didn’t care. Because Pixar have discovered the magical formula, now. The film consistently pulls on a visceral emotional response. Sometimes that’s laughter, or warm nostalgia. Sometimes it’s pure, big, colourful spectacle. Often it’s trying to make you cry. These are the things Inception doesn’t quite know how to use. Even, for example, as an action film, Toy Story fares better. It provides more pure heart-in-mouth moments, at least one example of sheer terror for the plight of the heroes. For all its folding cities and rotating, anti-gravity fight scenes, Toy Story does spectacle better. In emotion? Inception is barely interested. Pixar, meanwhile, are masters of traditionally-crafted films, everything perfectly placed knowing the exact reaction it aims for and will achieve.That sounds a light mechanical. And Toy Story‘s difficult to talk about this way, because it’s as exactly as much of a bare example of pure, masterful craft as Inception is. And, thing is: while I hardly dreaded seeing Toy Story 3, it summoned nothing of the excitement the last few Pixar films have held for me. I knew the formula, I didn’t care much for the characters and, frankly, it seems unlike the Pixar of today. They seem a little beyond sequels at this point. The first film is a great family film … but Pixar seem to be pushing to making films for adults, that just happen to be accessible to (and, fortunately, hold the endless fascination of) kids too. Not too many other films in the history (and probably future) of cinema whose focus was a grieving widower could also sell action figures and inspire arguments over, no, I wanna be Kevin this time in the back garden, y’know? Being fully honest, a lot of my worries applied. They just didn’t matter. It was formulaic. The plot followed the familar pattern of the first two in a lot of ways. But damn if it didn’t fight the corner for the film formula as a non-dirty word. The formula works, and it’s a proven form on which to hang some quite thoughtful ideas: in this case, a reversal of the getting-old/broken/redundant theme of Toy Story 2. I’m still not too fond of Buzz and Woody as characters, true: but the ideas they represent – childhood, and lost toys, and innocence – are holy to me. Endangering them is an assault on entire parts of my personality. Which is why being a sequel works. Toy Story was itself a part of my childhood; it’s true for all of us. No other piece of pop-culture has held such a perfect position for our generation. It’s as easy to sneer at the little kids going into the cinema as it is the newcomers attending a gig to sing along to the chorus of your favourite band’s one accidental hit-single and tap their toe through the other stuff. This isn’t theirs, it’s ours. After all, it’s been seven years. In any other hands, this would look like greed. And until I sat down in that cinema, being honest, it did. But, just like Dom checking his watch and the ticking parking meter and the impending potential fine, it all washed away in the ease of perfect feeling Toy Story 3 manages to be. Enough to show me I was being a snob; to show me the wisdom in letting us grow out of Toy Story just a little, placing us firmly in the place of Andy, and so more emotionally vulnerable. But all that came after the film; not during. Never during. That’s the Pixar magic. …And I guess that’s all, folks. I’ve got a lot more in me: how both films reminded me of Lost, in differing ways. My worries about the future of Pixar, and the theory of Pixar’s Five Ages. But I’ve gone on long enough. I’m sure most of it will come out in future posts or essays or comments. Oh, and speaking of essays: if you would by any chance be interested in reading the essay I wrote for a Film Studies course on death and mourning in Disney and Pixar films (using Up, Bambi and The Lion King as my examples), let me know and I’ll post it up on here. But be warned, it makes this admittedly long-windeed post look like a brief relaxed chat. And, for anyone wondering, here’s the Kenickie b-side I named these two posts after:
Ratatouille is, in many ways, the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film’s confused aims and mixed success. It’s not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up. Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood. Even in my own memory – having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist – the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance. And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in great Art. I’ll break this down…. Remy – the film’s hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat – is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion.Yet, he is tied down in his roots. Remy is a rat- enemy of the cooking industry. This provides a lot of the film’s conflict, but it represents any underdog, any unlikely outsider. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn’t help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and ‘us vs them’ has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that’s the one that – perhaps significantly – stood out to me. Though, as Remy’s hero reinforces throughout, “anyone can cook”, regardless of who they are. But Remy’s family don’t understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy’s interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him- in an early scene, by literally shooting a shotgun at him and chasing him firmly away. So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol’ Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.Our secondary hero, Linguini, on the right there, is just a proxy for Remy’s ability. For the purposes of the film’s metaphor, he is just another part of the artist- the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental. In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau’s successful recipes*. It is for this that Anton Ego, the secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant to “tourist fare.” Ego vs. Remy is the film’s great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, “thin for someone who likes food.” There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?The moment of Ego’s rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic’s roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille- “a peasant’s dish”. The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always handy short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed. And, of course the world can’t take it. There is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder… Maybe I’m putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids’ film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions- writing this at 2am having just finished watching the film, I’m Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven’t even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with… well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station. Good. At least I’m not the embittered critic. I’m a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego. (Sidenote: look at the film’s logo. Even its somewhat pretentious, for a kids’ film, title is broken down to accessible chunks. It’s a silly little joke, it’s making it easier to approach for kids, it’s the entire film in one handsome logo.) *It might be worth noting at this point that the film was written and directed by the wonderful Brad Bird, who worked on the peak seasons of The Simpsons, probably TV’s comedy, but by Ratatouille‘s 2007 release very firmly in a formulaic rut. Ahem.