A Pixar film directed by Brad Bird
1h 51min, USA, 2007
Pixar Studios is without peer among animation studios. Rival studios and effect houses must be crushingly envious trying to figure out how to do the stunning photorealistic backgrounds of the newest film, Ratatouille, not to mention the kinetic chase scenes. Practically every sequence is a tour de force. But I’ll go further: Pixar is America’s greatest film studio, period. If there’s any other Hollywood studio with a richer, more satisfying, more impressive output, I’d like to hear the case made.
In 20 years, this will be considered classic Hollywood filmmaking. In terms of depth of character, in relevance and mastery of narrative, in terms of technique and advancing the medium, Pixar has it all. If the fact that’s it’s animation gives you pause, well, that’s your problem, and you have yet to wake up to the digital age we’re living in.
A couple days ago, we rented Pixar’s The Incredibles. From an auteurist standpoint — the credits of Ratatouille call it a Pixar Studios Film rather than a film by a particular director — it’s minor Pixar. Still, if the material can coax a great vocal performance out of a very lazy actor, Harrison Ford — in fact, making him unrecognizable — then someone must be doing something right. Animation frees many type-bound Hollywood actors — think Mike Meyers in the Shrek franchise — and allows them to be something they’re not, something they can never be within an ever more rigid, formulaic and cynical system for making movies.
There’s also something about animation that sets it aside from normal demographic considerations. Ratatouille makes a very strong case, in both social and economic terms, for allowing artists to pursue their dreams, but situating them squarely and uncomfortably between the demands of family & class and the demands of commerce. A small, independent and quite wonderful movie like Big Night presented the same dynamic. Which feature will reach the widest audience? Is the message diluted because of the wider reach? Answers: Pixar’s and No. But is this message something routine for an ordinary, wide-release Hollywood picture or has it ever been presented so convincingly and authentically? It’s a message relevant to both kids and adults, and politicians and activists.
If there is a primary thematic thrust in Pixar’s movies, it’s the problem of the integration of difference into existing social and economic institutions – an ongoing problem, it seems. In The Incredibles it’s super-heroes forced underground because of their differences with the rest of humanity. Yet they also experience problems within their own family because of differences between their unique super-powers. Secrecy, turns out, is no good for social cohesion or progress, especially when such difference could result in the achievement of greatness. In Ratatouille, a rat with an enhanced sense of smell attempts to not only raise his own station in life, but enlighten both the non-believers — his rat colony — but also, the believers — the community of chefs and foodies who insist, at least superficially, that good food is important — to the fact that someone from outside both communities has something to say and do about the status quo.
“Life is change,” says Remy the Rat, and it’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.