Pixar pretty much owns the press clippings and praise handed out in the animation market these days because, basically, they do what they do better than anyone else can even imagine doing it. The only fair Smackdown then for Pixar’s latest release “Ratatouille” is the first Pixar release “Toy Story.” Rotten Tomatoes has “Ratatouille” hovering at a 96% freshness rating and critics heaping accolades on it — so it’s a fair fight. Both films give real emotional life to items and/or creatures that don’t have such life like old used toys and filthy rats. The question this will come down to is this: what is the balance between hot, new ways of showing off your technology and the demands and rewards of good old-fashioned stories and characters?
At a 4th of July party, my friend Randal actually suggested we go see this movie because the reviews had been so universally wonderful. So, not knowing much more than that, we went to see it the next day, only a little chargined we didn’t have little kids with us as cover. Anyway, the plot to “Ratatouille” works like this: Remy, a rat who seems to know good food from garbage, eventually finds himself in Paris in the once-great restaurant Gusteau’s. He hooks up with a young klutz named Linguini (a human) and together, with Remy hiding in Linguini’s chef’s hat, they procede to light the Paris restaurant establishment on fire with their masterpieces. Naturally, Remy’s family will sing the siren song pulling Remy to return to his rat home, and Linguini will fall in love and there will be an evil chef. One thing this movie does tackle rather successfully is the logic of communication. How to Remy and Linguini talk to each other. What you find out is that rats can talk rat-to-rat but rats can’t speak to humans.
The Defending Champion
When it comes to animation films, there’s no question that Pixar’s “Toy Story” is the gold standard. When it was released in 1995, it was a revelation about the future of animation that blew away and antiquated everything that came before it. Most of you who are reading this have seen it, and even “Toy Story 2,” but it concerns a little boy’s favorite toy, a cowboy doll named Woody, and the toy that may soon replace him, the ultra-cool Buzz Lightyear who, unlike all the other toys isn’t in on the joke that he’s a toy; he thinks he’s really an astronaut. Most of the action takes place in a couple of kid’s bedrooms. The toys talk to toys and any interaction with the human world is kept at a distance. It’s all about the toys because it is, well, a “Toy Story.”
“Ratatouille” scores more points than “Toy Story” in the next-generation quality it shows off. This is to be expected, I guess, since computers get larger and faster and we humans get smarter and more facile in bending them to our will. I loved the look of “Toy Story” but there is no doubt that the look of “Ratatouille” is even more refined. The hair on a rat’s ass, for example, looks individual and realistic (except for Remy’s blue hair).
But that may also be a problem. Do we really want to see a movie about a rat (and later, lots of rats) cooking gourmet food for humans in a classy French restaurant? Apparently this did not bother the vast majority of critics, but it bothered me. A lot. It messed with my rooting value so much that in many of the final scenes where I know the filmmakers expected us to cheer, I laughed at the lunacy of a kitchen full of hundreds of rats being accepted by anybody for a food critic to a chef.
On the character score, there is something wonderful about the poignancy of Woody being put out to pasture in “Toy Story” and the relationship of self-need and friendship that develops with the “other” toy Buzz Lightyear. Or when Buzz realizes he is, in fact, only a toy. In contrast, the problem of “Ratatouille” is simply that a kid who’s supposed to inherit a well-known restaurant can’t cook but a rat can. See where I’m going?
This Smackdown is all about story and not technology. When the movies first came out, they were content to watch just about anything but as the newness wore off, they began to demand improvements in story, acting, characters, etc. The same has happened with the magic of a slightly better technical animation in a movie. It simply does not trump all the other values any more. No rat out of a sewer is going to cook me a meal and have me like it and I don’t care how many moments of him washing his tiny rat hands they put in the film. But a poor little cowboy doll who wonders if he’s relevant anymore and a hot new astronaut toy who has to face his own toy-ness, well, that gets me on an emotional level because I’ve already accepted the reality of toys talking to toys. The gold standard of Toy Story remains the gold standard of animation, no longer for its bells-and-whistles in byte-crunching, but for its story and characters and how beautifully they were laid out.