Friday, July 6, 2007

A Feast of Cinema

Over the last twelve years, Pixar Animation Studios has maintained a consistent level of quality in their movies. Though I haven't fallen in love with all of them (e.g. A Bug's Life, Cars), their "disappointments" are usually good enough films in their own rights, and are only labelled considered minor efforts due to the high quality audiences and critics have come to expect from them and. Pixar has become renowned for combining visually unique animation styles with accessible, yet genuine stories that are all but lost in the majority of Hollywood moviemaking. Pixar's repertoire therefore represents a celebration of innovation and tradition, a fusion that manifests in different ways in all of their movies from the great to the good.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Brad Bird's Ratatouille is consistent with Pixar's standard of quality filmmaking. However, its status as a Pixar production may actually work against itself. An average viewer has certain expectations of a Pixar/Disney film in that its oriented towards children, is animated (often associated with children in the American mainstream), and features talking animals (again, associated with children's films). Make no mistake, though; this is a brilliant movie. Not a brilliant Pixar movie. Not a brilliant animated movie. A brilliant movie. So brilliant, I contend, that I would proclaim Brad Bird as one of the really unique voices in American cinema.

At one of my favorite blogs, My Five Year Plan, Brendon Bouzard has written a brief account of the movie that succinctly surmises why this movie is so good. In this short piece, Bouzard takes note of the film's visual style, specifically its "filmness". He writes:

"Here’s another thing to geek out about, animation nerds: if you were ever bugged (as I sometimes was, especially in A Bug’s Life) by the extreme deep-focus cinematography of computer animation, your worries are over. Ratatouille’s greatest formal innovation might be the incredible way it articulates focus as a storytelling element into popular computer animation. Its execution here is flawless, perfectly mimicking the depths-of-focus one might expect from various lensings used in the film, and adding yet another layer of stunning false indexicality to draw a viewer into the narrative."

Bouzard's comments strike the perfect chord in light of the stalled dialogue concerning digital cinema. Ratatouille, despite being purely digital, nonetheless exhibits a real love of the art of filmmaking: the cinematic staging of actors and mise en scene, the simple beauty of composition, the depth-of-focus in how the camera "captures", and the shear viscera of movement. This movie is not over-edited, but rather enjoys its "filmness" despite not existing as "film". Interestingly, Bouzard was responsible for some of the finest writing I've come across about another film which blends the photographic with the digital: Miami Vice. In different ways, both Vice and Ratatouille represent crucial works in the advancement of the medium of digital cinema. They each acknowledge and romanticize their photographic origins and properties, but which actively pursue new syntactical approaches to how we see cinematic images and construct the world of a film in our memory.

There are moments in Ratatouille so visually arresting and yet challenging at the same time. Its images do not exist for the spectator to become a passive recipient of information. These images actively involve the viewer in the construction of the "world" of the movie, which (in my mind) is closely connected to a movie's affective abilities. As we process the visual, auditory, and narrative information, we construct a knowledge of the cinematic space occupied by the characters and action. Too often, this aspect of film viewing goes unrecognized in criticism, but I maintain that the construction of cinematic space is crucial; specifically, how a viewer makes sense of a moving image and constructs a relational memory of its elements. This is no doubt an intricate process that I couldn't even begin to lay out in precise detail, suffice to say that the film exhibits a joy for movement and cinematic space that takes advantage of its digital and analogic properties. The end result is a film with so many memorable moments, images, and feelings that is both incredibly subtle and accessible to all viewers.

Its richness is found in moments both large and small, from the rich detail of the film's rainy opening shot, to the sweeping majesty of Paris when it is first revealed. Amazing detail went into the construction of every aspect of this movie; its tones of atmosphere and feeling come through in every scene and every shot. Some of these can be easily noticed and described. Others need to be enjoyed to be understood.

Apart from the details of the film's form, I simply marvel at how Bird, his animators, and actors gives life to the characters and narrative. The central relationship of the movie, between Remy, a rat who loves to cook, and Linguini, a clumsy amateur chef is brought to such poignant life. Yes, the structure of the film dictates that this relationship undergo conventional patterns of conflict, but the beauty of their relationship is in the small exchanges between them. One such example is immediately following their intial awkward meeting, when Linguini has the assignment of getting rid of Remy. Watching their budding relationship, the expressiveness of the eyes, the awkward speech and movements of a flustered boy without direction, and the vulnerable body motions of Remy, I was reminded of the births of so many memorable relationships in cinema, in particular Eliott and E.T. or between Chaplin and the bling girl in City Lights. Something so naive is captured in nuances of the characters' eyes and faces against the lonely backdrop of riverside Paris.

Ratatouille is full of moments like this. In the thematic background is an earnest inquiry into the nature of identity. Remy's basic conflict of his desire to interact with humans and engage in the very human art of cooking is in direct contrast with what his family, in particular his father, believes. The film does not so simply side with Remy and paint his family as buffoons who need to grow. Remy sometimes sees them as such, sometimes validly, sometimes invalidly. The whole movie deals with the notion that perception is often determined based on social context and one's own positioning in relation to that which is perceived. Remy's father has good reason to keep away from humans, yet Remy (in a moment of defeat and conquer) claims that "nature is change," before walking away from his father. When asked where he was going, Remy says, "With any luck, forward."

The above description may paint a picture of a movie that speechifies or condescends with messages about embracing those different from you. (I would expect that too if I hadn't seen the movie!) Incredibly, the films instead serves up these conflicts and ideas in subtle ways, allowing the viewer to feel them and ponder them. There are dimensions to all of the characters, some that go completely unnoticed by other characters, even viewers. Even the seemingly elitist critic, Anton Ego, is revealed to be much more complex than others (even himself) allow themselves to see. This thematic note is the center of whole film, and it strikes a resounding chord.

I wish I could recount all of Ratatouille's treasures. But I think I'll turn it to A.O. Scott, in his excellent review serves up the best possible conclusion to a reflection on such a masterpiece:

"Remy and Mr. Bird take a stand in defense of an artisanal approach that values both tradition and individual talent: classic recipes renewed by bold, creative execution. The movie’s grand climax, and the source of its title, is the preparation of a rustic dish made of common vegetables — a dish made with ardor and inspiration and placed, as it happens, before a critic. And what, faced with such a ratatouille, is a critic supposed to say? Sometimes the best response is the simplest. Sometimes “thank you” is enough."


PIPER said...

What an excellent review.

I too saw this movie and thought it wonderful and different, but could not articulate it as you have.

Brad Bird continues to be an excellent director. He proved in The Iron Giant that 2-D Animation wasn't dead, it just needed a good director and story. To me The Incredibles is the perfect story to be told with animation. And Ratatouille was the first grown up animated movie I have seen for a long time. I caught myself tearing up at the end of the movie, caught in a cinematic moment while watching a cartoon. That's quite a statement to how powerful Brad Bird made this film.

Kudos again on such an excellent review.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comment, Piper! I think you bring up an interesting point about animation as a mode of cinema.

Brad Bird is revolutionizing what we know as animation. I know that sounds like a loaded statement, but if this truly is the beginning of a new movement in animation from a narrative and film form perspective, then I think we are moving into a place where animation knows no bounds and will no longer be thought of as "animation" in the sense of its current contextual meanings. It will mean something different; applicable to any genre, and capable of any cinema.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I've been struggling with a review for The House that pairs Bird's film with Paprika. I think they're after very similar ends despite taking up distinctly different inheritances and generic tactics. Anyways, I wanted to agree that Bird is some kind of magic man. And place my inconsequential and silly cyberspace vote for Ratatouille as the best film of the year thus far. It will be hard to top.

Ted Pigeon said...

I will look forward to reading that, Ryand. And I definitely agree with you about Ratatouille being the best movie of the year so far. Nothing I've seen even comes close. Then again, there is still much to see. Nevertheless, aside from all the best of the year talk, I firmly believe this film to be among the most memorable and innovative American movies in recent memory. It's not about just advancing technology, but instead it's about discovering new modes of visual storytelling and cinematic style. I need to see it again before I start constructing such an argument, as I have begun doing with Miami Vice, but I do believe this to be true having seen it once. Thanks for the comment, Ryland!

PIPER said...


You're right. Another example of this are the films of Ralph Bakshi. I have been a long time follower of his work for the specific reason that he didn't believe that animation had to be childish. And his use of animation over live action is truly breakthrough. Unfortunately, he never really found his place.

Ted Pigeon said...

I haven't seen any films by that director, Piper, but I'll have to check some out. Another great animated film director, as many know is Miyazaki. While I totally embrace digital animation and digital filmmaking as a whole, I do not think it should replace traditional animation, kind of like how technicolor gradually replaced the black and white film after about 20 or 30 years. The animation shift has happened much faster, which I think is due to economic purposes. Nevertheless, directors like Miyazaki are living proof that there is no creative ends to even the most basic forms of animation. Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are among my very favorite movies. There is such magic about them both, and that's likely due to Miyazaki's ability to be totally in-tune with the sensibilities of color, drawings, movement, and cinema.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I prefer Snow White to anything I've seen from Bashki, actually, which may or may not be effected by my affection for Tolkien. And I prefer almost any Miyazaki film to Snow White. I think the real gem in his ouevre is My Neighbor Totoro. It's on the shortlist I've made of films one might, on the right day, call "perfect".

It seems hand-drawn cell animation is still prevalent in Japan but the smart directors are doing rather remarkable things with merging the old technology with the new, computer technology. At least with the Satoshi Kon films I've seen (Paprika, Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress) and the second Ghost in the Shell, it seems impossible to talk about form and content as separate entities: they only ever inform each other to build the world of the film/s. There's still a lot of anime I have yet to see but every time I see a good one I get the itch to see more... I would argue it's some of the most imaginative, innovative filmmaking around, aside from Miami Vice. (Asia continues to produce great film across all platforms, actually. They are the hot shit continent right now for my money.)

PIPER said...

From Bakshi I recommend

Hey Goodlookin'


Fire and Ice

Lord Of The Rings

It's not fantastic stuff by any means but it's very interesting. Bakshi set himself up as the anti-Disney by animating the very first X-Rated cartoon Fritz The Cat. Never seen it, but I grew up with his other movies. Miyazaki is incredible. Spirited Away, Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle are further proof that 2-D animation can thrive with good writing and direction.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Probably saw it, but my shit's up on The House today.

Ted Pigeon said...

I have still not seen My Neighbor Totoro, which is probably a crime considering my love of animation and Miyazaki. I'm going to have to see that as soon as I can.

And great review, Ryand. I really like your approach to both of these movies. I want to now see Paprika as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm very intrigued with the attention you paid to Ratatouille's cinematography - still, I wouldn't call it innovative. That label goes to "Happy Feet," which went even farther, and to - I think, anyway - greater effect, with its' use of vantage points, it's flawless tracking shots, and etc.

This isn't to debase "Ratatouille," however. It is Pixar's best film, so far. Even better than WALL-E, which didn't really impress me all that much.