Written and directed by Brad Bird
Genius is a blessing and a curse. Who doesn’t have that moment where they wished they knew the answer to a question, whether it’s to sound important, put someone else in their place, or just show off? But being a genius has one obvious pitfall: once you prove yourself to be smart, or witty, or creative, or profound, everyone expects that much of you, if not more, in the future. If you don’t pay off on the promise of your initial genius, people start to wonder. It may or may not be wrong of the consumer, of the audience, to measure artists not only by their current work, but to compare it to their past projects. But we all do it, even if we don’t want to. And in judging artists and their work, we’re all going in with certain expectations.
I imagine that some of the critics who rightly championed Pixar Animation Studios after its first film, 1995’s Toy Story, started to wonder if they were viewing a fluke around 1998 and early 1999. In 1998, Walt Disney Pictures released Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life, to positive, but not rapturous, reviews. Though the movie is a loving homage to Seven Samurai, it seemed a bit safer, a bit more commercial, than Toy Story. Both were quite funny, but this one may have lacked a bit of a heart. And what was Pixar’s next movie? A…sequel to Toy Story? Did they have no more juice left? Of course, the skeptics were proven wrong with Toy Story 2, but even then, we see the issue of expectations rear its ugly head.
By the time 2007 rolled around, it wasn’t that Pixar could do no wrong, so much as Pixar being able to do whatever it wanted. There had been quite a serious scare at Pixar Animation Studios when it seemed like Michael Eisner, the CEO of Walt Disney Pictures, would let the studio’s contract lapse, with Cars and Ratatouille being Pixar’s last films with the Mouse House. By the time Ratatouille opened, though, Eisner had been ousted from the company, and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were at the top of Disney, not just Pixar. I imagine that the truly daring stories the Pixar filmmakers told from 2007 to 2010 weren’t some kind of response, a flag being planted in Hollywood, in which they stated that they’d fully embraced the idea of making animated films that kids could enjoy, but weren’t expressly for younger audiences. But there is an undeniable connection between Pixar becoming nearly an equal partner in the Walt Disney Company and it releasing four astonishingly good movies in four consecutive years.
That short but powerful streak began with Ratatouille, a movie with an absolutely ridiculous concept: a talking rat wants to be a chef in Paris and gets to be one by controlling a hapless loser like a marionette. It gets your attention, sure, but if a concept seems surer to be a weird failure, I’d like someone to point it out to me. Frankly, it’s, I think, no accident that the stigma of the can’t-work premise also connects with that four-year stretch. I remember distinctly sitting in the theater, watching the previews before Ratatouille in a crowd mostly full of families. The teaser for WALL-E came on, and whenever I think of it, I am impressed at its tone as much as I’m impressed by anything else Pixar has done. Most teaser trailers–especially by Pixar–feature a scene that won’t appear in the final product or just bare hints of what’s to come simply to encourage the target audience to get ready. The WALL-E trailer, while ending with a hint of what to expect, begins with its director, Andrew Stanton, giving a short genesis of the story. In it, he names Lasseter, the late Joe Ranft, and Pete Docter having a lunch in 1994 where they discussed future movies. By the time June of 2007 rolled around, only one of those movies hadn’t been released: cue the scene from WALL-E.
I bring it up here to ask this: who is that trailer for? I find it hard to believe that the 8-year olds in the audience perked up at the idea of the Pixar braintrust meeting a year before Toy Story to discuss their creative future. I know it intrigued me, but I was even more intrigued by the taste of WALL-E, where we only heard one world of dialogue. That word was the titular character saying his own name, but as we all know, it sounds like a hybrid of R2-D2 and a voice manipulator. When I heard that single word, I knew I would be in the theater on opening day, and I also wondered how the hell Pixar would pull such a movie off. But then again, I was asking myself the same thing about Ratatouille.
One of the reasons why the four-year streak for Pixar is so impressive is not just because the four films–Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3–are incredible, but because they are so different from each other. Obviously, being directed by four different people makes for four different movies, but let’s be honest: the four directors weren’t known for making the same movies over and over again. Stanton moved from an emotional adventure about a neurotic father learning to let go to a near-silent love story between futuristic robots. Pete Docter moved from an alternate universe where the monsters under our bed are just as human as us to a man’s piercing journey to Venezuela to pay homage to his dead wife. Lee Unkrich’s first solo effort was in Toy Story 3, but his road was even more divergent, as he co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. And then there’s Brad Bird.
I will be honest with you: I’m kind of disappointed that I won’t be able to talk about Bird’s first foray into live-action filmmaking, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol on the show. Because it’s a Paramount Pictures film, I won’t be discussing it in depth, but I’m extremely curious to see what Bird can bring to the fourth installment of a well-worn franchise, even if he’s got J.J. Abrams as a producer and actors like Jeremy Renner in front of the camera. Of any of the four directors, I think Bird has the most diverse resume, jumping from The Simpsons in the early 1990s to The Iron Giant in 1999, then to Pixar in 2004 with The Incredibles, then Ratatouille. The animated films he’s directed may seem wildly divergent–and in many ways, they are–but they all have a clear personal stamp. You can hear Bird making his point–hell, in Ratatouille, he’s all but shouting it–in each one, more powerful than its predecessor.
Creativity matters. Creativity must be encouraged, especially in a world that’s become more cynical. And creativity comes from everywhere. Even though Bird is careful to also acknowledge that creativity of the kind that Remy shows in Ratatouille cannot be replicated in each of us, he’s just as strongly telling us that it is unexpected, it is important, and it can be breathtaking. But we have to encourage it and be willing to have open minds. Perhaps that’s an instruction to anyone, such as myself, who found the concept of the movie inherently ridiculous. “Don’t judge this book by its cover. Give it a chance.”
It’s this epiphany that’s so simple, so sincere, and so welcoming that Anton Ego, one of the ostensible antagonists of Ratatouille, embraces in the film’s climax. The sequence leading up to this embrace, embodied in the form of a review, is one of the great scenes of the last decade of American film. Put it alongside the interrogation scene in The Dark Knight, the oil derrick sequence from There Will Be Blood, the scene where Paul Giamatti discusses his passion about wine in Sideways, or any other. There is, has been, and apparently always will be a stigma against animation, a stigma saying that animation can’t be as good as live-action, because…well, it just can’t be, right? If animation is better than live-action, if it upstages the common format, that can’t be a good thing for the future of film.
But there’s no question that Remy corralling his entire clan of rats, and his human friends Linguine and Collette–the latter coming back not purely for her love of Linguine, but because she believes as fiercely as Remy does that anyone indeed can cook–to prepare the titular dish for Ego so he can presumably eviscerate Gusteau’s once again despite its newfound popularity is one of the most triumphant climaxes in a recent movie. Bird, arguably, is more successful here than in The Incredibles in crafting such a perfect, well-deserved ending. We have been waiting for the entire movie, waiting for someone to validate Remy as he wants to be validated. When Linguine tells Remy he’s a good chef, we smile but know that Remy needs approval from a higher source. He wants it from a specific source. Even though the more obvious villain is Chef Skinner, who might as well be twirling a mustache despite being an enjoyably kooky bad guy as voiced by Ian Holm, from the get-go, we know that Remy and Ego will have to face off, in a manner of speaking.
That face off culminates not only with Ego getting a rush of childhood memories, but with him grappling with his role in culture and society in a very real, poignant, and honest way. The way that Brad Bird so incisively discusses criticism in its form and intent, plus the stentorian talents of Peter O’Toole, combine for a Pixar Moment. (Can I patent that term? I should, shouldn’t I?) Without wanting to sound condescending, I honestly wonder how many children under the age of, say, 8 got the true meaning of Ego’s review-cum-monologue. Yes, Ego likes Remy’s food, but that’s not what the review is about. In a movie that doesn’t need to be about the place of creativity and art in the modern world, here is a scene that doesn’t need to exist. And yet it does. The scene is beautiful and quite moving. In some ways, though you may think I’m heaping more than enough praise on Ratatouille, the deserved hosannas this movie gets are kind of the sword of Damocles hanging over Pixar’s collective head.
When I walked out of Ratatouille, I didn’t hide my admiration but wondered legitimately if Pixar could top itself at all, let alone with this strange-looking WALL-E. The following June, I asked myself the same question, except I wondered if Up would stem the tide of brilliance. And so it went in 2010 with Toy Story 3. Though Cars 2 clearly broke the streak–even the positive reviews weren’t daring enough to compare this film positively to movies like WALL-E–I still ask the question. Maybe the more precise way to ask it is this: when is Pixar going to make an ambitious failure? All of their films have some ambition on display, even the Cars films. Their next movie is ambitious if only because, on the surface, it treads old ground by introducing the first Pixar princess. Two of its next features, despite not having titles, seem to be even more ambitious than its predecessors: one is about dinosaurs co-existing with humans as if asteroids never wiped them out, and the other is about the human mind. Any fears you might have had about Pixar cashing in with Cars 2 should be allayed by those loglines.
I don’t exactly fear the first–and there will be one, there has to be–ambitious failure from Pixar. I kind of want to see what it looks like. In another world, Ratatouille or WALL-E is that failure. In this world, we’ll have to wait. Though some wags may assume folks like me are waiting with bated breath to cut into Pixar for making such a film, I welcome it because the only thing that will ever turn me off of a Pixar film entirely is a lack of passion. Passion, like creativity, needs to be encouraged, needs to be developed over time. Like a great meal, it has many ingredients. Like the prickly protagonist of Ratatouille, it is surprising and proves that such passion can come from even the oddest of places. But passion is what makes Pixar so great, so universal, and so close to infallibility. Most importantly to this, passion is what makes Ratatouille one of the best American films of my generation.
– Josh Spiegel