Saturday, 23 June 2007

Ratatouille (2007)

Anton Ego and Roger Ebert: Separated at Birth?

After the heights and brilliance of The Incredibles in 2004, I was sorely disappointed with Cars - for the first time in its history, the studio had managed to produce a predictable and formulaic animated feature, so totally at odds with the conceptual creativity evident in all its previous movies. As fun as Owen Wilson was, and as competent the animation and character design were, as far as the story was concerned, Cars simply a far cry compared to the studio's previous efforts. At around this time last year, I remarked to my movie partner in the cinema that the teaser trailer for Ratatouille looked promising, at least - the idea of a rat with the passions of a gourmet trying to cut it as a chef in a French restaurant is a completely new idea altogether that perhaps Pixar would redeem itself.

First, the good news. Again, Pixar has produced an 3D CGI animation that stands heads and shoulders over its American competitors. One only needs to point to the quality of its animation. The strongest point of Ratatouille is its agreeable animation style. For this outing, Pixar applies the Japanese philosophy of softening 3D CGI to look like cell animation, while adding its own touch - there is still some degree of 3D detail for viewers to marvel at. And like most American animations, Ratatouille has plenty of sequences to showcase the technical brilliance of the animators and their brilliant application of the latest animation technology. Strangely, for an animated movie, and a CGI at that, the close-ups of food in the kitchen is as appetising as real food on cooking shows, and somehow the animated rats look lifelike and cute, in equal proportions. The story, about a rat and an aspiring chef reaching the heights of cookery, is expectedly far more mature and reined-in than the surface celebration of pop culture references and cheap gags by other US animation studio offerings from this year. Clearly Pixar gets both animation and story right, and does both much better than many US studios.

While it outclasses its competitors without breaking a sweat, there are a few issues with Ratatouille that make it a good, but not excellent Pixar film. Instead of heralding a return to originality by the Pixar team, and despite the far-out original premise given by the teaser last year, Ratatouille turns out - after you get accustomed to the food porn and the kinder and gentler animation techniques - to be the studio's second genre film turned cartoon. And for a studio like Pixar, whose most original stories were its best animation projects, that's a serious underachievement. One thing that comes across is the derivativeness of Ratatouille: from its presentation, style, humour, and even plot twists and villain designs, Ratatouille is very much a traditional and unremarkable member of Japanese-inspired food/cooking shows (taking the stylistics of Cooking Master Boy, Iron Chef, Yakitate!! Japan).

For a studio that has broken genre conventions in storytelling in its earlier features, and has indeed carved a name for itself with its transcendent writing in both Toy Story movies, this uncharacteristic shift to cultural riffing of existing genres and conventions is puzzling, and perhaps may disappoint Asian audiences eager to watch the next original Pixar movie. While Pixar's cultural riffing is far less annoying and more sophisticated than Dreamworks efforts like Shark Tale, the impression that they've arrived late for the party is somewhat heightened by the fact that Ratatouille's villain is by far the most unimaginatively conceptualised, traditional, and one-sided of all Pixar features - even flatter and more stereotypically villainous than the comic Bowler Hat Guy in Meet the Robinsons. Sharp-eyed audiences may even identify the aspiring chef and his plight as a straightforward male version of the Classic Disney cartoon helpless heroine who is forced to rely on magical characters to do what she's expected to do (Rumpelstiltskin!).

While Ratatouille is a clear improvement over Cars, and vastly superior to rival animation offerings, it comes nowhere near the sophistication and creativity of The Incredibles and Toy Story. If you stay to watch the entirety of the closing credits, which comprise of solely 2D animation and stills all equally brilliantly done by Pixar (the studio should consider doing a 2D animation project in the future), you might understand what is missing in the heart of Ratatouille: the 2D closing credits artwork is brimming with mood, atmosphere, character, and effortless fun. Pixar's animators may have had to spend weeks in the real city of Paris, eaten at real restaurants, gone into real kitchens, and studied real rats, but they fail to realise this time round that animation is not about recreating reality at all. In terms of telling an original story, Pixar's scriptwriting team seems to have failed narrowly to deliver; in terms of using animation to create wonder in cooking, its team have done no better than say the cameramen at the Kitchen Stadium or the cel-animation and 2D animation studios from Japan.

Now, all these are minor quibbles, of course, and should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the movie - which is indeed enjoyable. The screening of Ratatouille is also accompanied with the teaser for Wall-E, Disney Pixar’s next movie. Judging from the teaser, Pixar’s next film is worth waiting for, and seems to be a completely original idea. Here's to hoping that it'll set Pixar back on the path to greatness!

First published at incinemas on 30 August 2007

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