Rat-a-ta-take that, Shrek

I’ve never been particularly into the Shrek franchise. This is kind of unusual for me in re: clever, hip media; I enjoy a good bandwagon jump as much as the next Net nerd, and have the 25 MST3K videos to prove it. Plus, Eddie Murphy, who as Mushu in Mulan is directly responsible for #2 on my all-time Sidekicks So Good I Bought the Movie list (after Robin Williams in Aladdin) and my sister, who loves the ogre movies, is forever telling me it’s the exact same character, like, really, she swears.

Somehow, though, I’ve been immune to Murphy’s equine charms, and everything else about the animation breakthrough of the millennium. Have always felt vaguely perturbed about that…until last night, when we foregathered around the Ratatouille DVD. Ten – no, five – hell, thirty freaking seconds into that movie, and I was not only vindicated in full but sailing along in full revelatory mode.

See – and I know this is going to sound vague and rambling, but you’ve put up with it until now, so why not? – Ratatouille is, simply, a movie. Not an ‘animated film’; a film, a minor masterpiece really, that just happens to be animated. The conventional wisdom holds that Pixar movies are made from the inside-out, from the heart; true, but the real genius of it is more subtle than that, I think.
The concept behind animation as a medium is that it can take an artist places they wouldn’t otherwise be able to go; and Pixar’s directors are working off a different idea of ‘place’ than anybody else. They don’t deal in fantasy, they bring a richer understanding to reality. I’ve been watching cartoons for most of my thirty-six years…and until last night I had no idea just how hugely important the difference is.

Oh, sure, the outlines of the traditional (American, I should add) animated format are there: the charmed and charming hero on a quest to defeat the villain and win his heart’s desire. There are cute anthropomorphic critters (albeit probably the first ones ever to be responsible for the Black Death); there is romance in the offing…there’s the big climactic setpiece where the hero must ultimately reach deep within and rise to his true strengths. That were there all along, natch.
It’s a rich vein for satire, and DreamWorks deserves every bit of the praise they received for initially mining it, if only for giving the genre a long-overdue spring cleaning. Thing is, though, ultimately the new brooms are just as locked into their hip self-awareness as Disney ever was in its fairy-tale archetypes.
More so, really, because cleverness isn’t nearly as durable a formula. It’s a point that Ratatouille interestingly makes itself, in its dawn-of-a-classic closing speech: the more you work at tearing something down – even if it deserves it – the less meaning your work ultimately has. Eventually, you end up with Happily N’Ever After, and frankly at that point you’re basically eating popcorn at a computerised re-enactment of Munsch’s The Scream.

Meanwhile Pixar just putters along, placidly unfettered amidst the noise and haste, open to the entire gamut of the human experience. It’s really kind of incredible – excuse it, please – how, in all the many decades that animation’s been an important art form, how few have understood the rewards of simply paying attention to the finer details of what makes us human.
Not cool, not smart, not trendy, not archetypal; just…people. I’ve seen all of the Pixar films to date, and while there have been ones I related to less easily than others there has never been a character I didn’t like. Not just laugh at; like. Even the villains, even the sidekicks, even the massive hunks of metal that populate Cars worked on that basic under-the-skin level.

Which is as good a point as any to break off the dissertation and just wallow in sheer talking-rat-movie goodness.

[SPOILER ALERT ]

About the animation I will only say that it is everything it’s been billed as. The vagaries of water (and in one case, electricity) on the rats’ fur becomes a running gag all by itself. The Parisian backdrops are a kind of love letter to the city, the pivotal restaurant kitchen could slot into a Food Network production without a credibility hitch, the illusion of the characters’ weight moving through space is flawlessly real even in the most cartoony moments, and downright breathtaking in the several extended chase sequences.
Speaking of which: If you have anything approaching a rodent phobia, stay away. Even if you’re mildly squeamish, you might wanna rethink, because one glimpse of our lead Remy’s Droopy Little Sad Ears and your guard will be mush, possibly all the way to the big climactic setpiece, which involves literally hundreds of photorealistic…uh…look! Cute fuzzy animals being steam-cleaned! [runs away]

As it happens, the nephews slotted Shrek 3 into the DVD player right after this movie and…let us just say that the difference has gotta be a wee bit embarrassing for Spielberg.

Anyway, onto that heart I’ve been babbling about: Remy is the engaging latest in what is becoming the Bird tradition of intelligent leads humanised by their need to gain perspective. If his journey isn’t quite as finely-nuanced as the Incredibles’, or as emotionally urgent as Marlin’s…well…there are still those ears, not to mention the rodent version of a Gallic shrug. Oooh, and that one moment where he really starts enjoying life as Linguini’s puppet master, his hyperactive wee paws tapping to the rhythm of the human’s chopping. Never tell me again heart cockles are purely metaphorical. I felt each individual one warm as I watched.

Meanwhile the determinedly un-gifted Linguini, who is touched by Remy’s culinary genius but can never understand it, strikes just the right note of regular-guy cluelessness  – not stupidity – throughout his attempts. (One of the many things I love about this movie is how it acknowledges its own excesses without breaking stride. “Don’t be so modest, you’re a rat for Pete’s sake!”). Honestly, paws aside I almost enjoyed Linguini more than Remy. He’s got more at stake, y’know? If Linguini can figure it out then there’s a chance for the rest of us.
Collette, the aforementioned love interest, is a trifle underwritten…but even that’s kind of cute, in a sort of hey-the-guys-tried fashion. Jeanine Garofalo doing a note-perfect French accent, people! (Also, Brian Dennehy growling ‘Shut up and eat your garbage, son!”) The vocal talent in this flick is such that you get kind of warm’n’fuzzy just realising how many celebrities must’ve offered, and how they got it exactly right anyway.

Skinner the sadistic head chef is on the other hand much more seriously sketchy; with all due respect to Gordon Ramsay, it’s hard to be truly shaken by a dude who’s throwing a tantrum over burritos…especially when the movie also contains Peter O’Toole. Oozing native hauteur, the kind that never concedes even as his heart melts. Remy has earned his trust, not his love; and he still better not ever serve him an inferior meal. It says something fairly amazing about Brad Bird’s skills as a film-maker that this is of course the only way his story could end.

Story-wise…I dunno, I keep hearing how it’s too long, maybe poorly paced, but to me everything was timed just about right. Once you realise the scale is organic, not ‘animated’, a certain amount of lingering in odd corners becomes actively necessary to the experience. You know that money shot of Remy caught fixing the soup? How it goes Caught![beat]toss the spice[beat] in this deeply satisfying rhythm, almost like a musical riff? The whole movie is like that. Every shot is finished, polished, and then embellished. Pixar aficionados know exactly what I’m talking about; those who don’t, soon will.
The ‘first kiss’ sequence particularly is a beautiful example of what I was talking about up top: in a live-action romantic comedy this is Standard Meet Cute #5986894, in Bird’s hands it’s an exquisite ballet of physical action, emotional reaction, a quick glimpse of a can of Mace, and a cute furry critter guiding us through it all. Bliss.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shing_
    Nov 21, 2007 @ 12:05:09

    I loved Ratatouille as well. I haven’t even watched Shrek3 yet. The first one was OK and I barely remember the 2nd one.

  2. shoebox2
    Nov 23, 2007 @ 20:29:51

    Exactly my point. 🙂

    Also, I totally [heart] your icon. Need to start accumulating some diversity there myself, I think…

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