Friday, July 20, 2007

Ratatouille: Food for Thought

Now that Brad Bird has directed three feature films, certain themes are becoming apparent. The first is that society persecutes the talented. Perhaps the Iron Giant shouldn't be thought of as talented so much as alien, but certainly The Incredibles and Remy are talented and all three films feature persecution.

The characters struggle to overcome the persecution, but not because of the persecution itself but because the persecution stands in the way of them exercising their talents. Bird appears to feel that talent should rise to the top and that others should willingly defer to talent. This is where the charge of elitism, and even fascism, are leveled at Bird. What he never shows is how talent has to be developed and refined. The Iron Giant is built with all his capabilities. The Incredibles are presumably born with super powers. Remy is born with a genius nose.

Contrast this with Joe Johnston's film October Sky, based on Homer Hickam's book Rocket Boys. It's about a group of boys in a mining town who are inspired by Sputnik to take up rocketry. The standard path in the town is for boys to graduate high school and enter the mines, so the boys stand out for wanting something different from the social norm. While the town attempts to discourage their efforts, especially when it appears that one of their rockets caused a fire, the film also deals with the boys struggling to figure out rocketry and documents their early failures. As talented as these boys might be, it takes effort to develop their talents.

As an artist, Bird has to know this. There's no way that his first work was as good as what he's doing now. For whatever reason, though, the maturation of talent doesn't interest him. The abilities of Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Remy are fully formed.

For Bird, ambition is not for personal glory, it's simply to reach a position where talent can be exercised. This is an interesting contrast to John Lasseter's characters in Toy Story and Cars. In those films, Woody and Lightning McQueen attempt to lead out of ego and only discover happiness when they forsake ambition. Both directors deal with ambition, but it signifies completely different types of characters.

In Lasseter's world, ambition always pits a character against a rival. Success can only come by overcoming a competitor. For Bird, the talented are either all in agreement (like the supers in The Incredibles), or unique like Remy or the Iron Giant. What would happen in Bird's world if two equally talented protagonists attempted to express their talents towards competing ends?

By avoiding the struggle to develop a character's talents or having a character compete against equally talented opponents, Bird slants his films heavily towards his chosen characters. In much the way the Disney princesses are fated to ascend to their rightful places, Bird's characters also triumph. While the princesses live in fantasy worlds, Bird's live in ours, but his films are just as much fairy tales as the Disney films. Bird's characters don't compromise and aren't diminished by a hostile environment. Their talents are fully exercised and they accomplish everything they're capable of. And if that isn't a fantasy, I don't know what is.


Matt J said...

Insightful review Mark & nicely drawn comparisons.

Pete Emslie said...

"What would happen in Bird's world if two equally talented protagonists attempted to express their talents towards competing ends?"

I'm not sure what you mean here by "competing ends", but I assume you mean results that are opposed to each other. In which case, I think you'd have to make that one protagonist up against an antagonist, as I don't see how you could have two heros competing for different outcomes, other than for personal glory.

If I may suggest, I think the concept of an equally talented antagonist is clearly what Bird has shown in "The Incredibles" with the character of Buddy evolving into the vilainous Syndrome. There is the difference between Buddy and Mr. Incredible, however, in that Buddy has no genetically acquired super powers. He is more of a technological whiz kid who has created gadgets that do all of his bidding. The fact that his skill has all been learned over some time through perseverence shows him to be a worthy adversary.

I'd also argue your point about Remy in "Ratatouille". Though his introduction in the movie has to play through fairly quickly in order to get us into the main story, I think it's clearly evident that Remy is only different from the other rats in that he believes that there must be something more to life than simply settling for eating garbage. He's been born with more discerning tastes than his fellow rats, but his talent for cooking is not there in the beginning. He learns to cook by watching Gusteau's cooking show on the old woman's TV whenever he gets the chance. So, yes, it is a learned skill, achieved through as much study as Remy can get without being caught!

I'll confess, my favourite of the Pixar films are these two by Brad Bird. Frankly, I admire his "elitist" tastes, as I admittedly share those views. I think he's right on the money with that scene in "The Incredibles" of Dash and his Mom in the car after the school incident, where Mom tells Dash he has to suppress the urge to use his super abilities and be like all the other kids, saying, "Everybody's special, Dash." To which Dash replies under his breath, "That's just another way of saying nobody is." Clearly Dash is not content to live a life of mediocrity.

That phenomenon of mediocrity is widespread today, especially in our industry of art and animation. Regarding TV animation specifically, I feel that the untalented are clearly in charge of the product, with the talented artists being told to draw down and not do anything that dares to look good. Flash animation doesn't even allow them to draw, but instead just shift badly designed cutouts around on computer screens. Where is the talent in that? I pity those among our Sheridan students with great talent, as they currently face a work situation in the studios that they are clearly overqualified for. They will rarely get an opportunity to shine with the abilities they possess. I think that's a tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Good point about Syndrome Pete, he is a strong antagonist. Although, in line with Mark's argument, don't you find it somewhat troubling that the only character in the film who really has to work for his power, and learn his skills, is the villain? I mean ultimately the character who put the most effort into being "special" ends up being evil, and thus the moral and intellectual lesser of those who are genetically gifted. He is eventually doomed to fail at the hands of the characters that were born special.

To make matters worse, Mr. Incredible was the one who pushed Buddy into this villainous role in the first place. How? By treating him as a lesser because he wasn't a genetic "super". Now, if Mr. Incredible had learned from this mistake, and had resolved not to take hardworking people for granted, this could have become a very meaningful complement to Bird's message, but no such revelation ever occurs. Mr. Incredible simply defeats Syndrome and goes on thinking that the silly normal never should have tried to be like us supers in the first place.

Don't get me wrong, I don't like all of the politically correct garbage about everyone being special either, and (as one of those animation students stuck in Flash) I do agree that talent should be given the chance to shine. Yet, talent is more often earned than given, and not everyone can be as much of a prodigy as perhaps Brad Bird and his protagonists are. Like it or not, these were choices that Bird made about the Incredibles and their nemesis, and they are as much a part of that film's message as all of the good stuff.

Pete Emslie said...

Anonymous - You've made a very good argument and I agree wholeheartedly with what you've said. Being a film about a family of superheroes, it is a fantasy to begin with, and not something that I'd want to apply literal thinking to. I'd rather just enjoy the film at face value, as I simply see that the family's inherent superpowers are just an an analogy for those in our real world who seem to be blessed with highly unusual natural ability. For instance, it is awe inspiring to me every time I see a news item regarding some music prodigy of 4 or 5 years old playing piano or violin with the ability of an adult. There is something absolutely magical to me about that and I find it truly inspiring. And I would hope that those little ones are encouraged to pursue their greatness, so long as they are also allowed to experience being a regular kid along the way.

In contrast, I find nothing admirable about the opposite situation. Interestingly, here is where the visual arts seem to part company with other art forms. For instance, a 5 year old child onstage, singing off-key and dancing off-rhythm is considered cute, yet an adult performing at that same 5 year old level of ability would be an embarrassment to all watching. At best they might be met with a smattering of polite but awkward applause, though they are more likely to be laughed and jeered at, then quickly yanked offstage.

Yet no such equivalent of discernment exists in the world of visual art. Instead, those who draw or paint at the level of a 5 year old's scrawl are heralded as exciting new talents, displaying originality of "style". In the current sad state of commercial animation, those who draw at the level of 5 to 12 years old are rewarded with their own TV shows, where all who work on them are expected to draw down to that pathetic level. Still, nobody dares call them on it. Instead, we have all been cowed into accepting these pronounced drawing deficiencies under the guise of individual "style". In the real world of animation, it seems nobody appreciates hearing that the Emperor is starkers. As a result of our industry not encouraging dissent or discerning opinions, we have mediocrity running rampant on the TV airwaves. This is why I applaud Brad Bird and his stories that encourage this pursuit of personal excellence. Only through aspiring to greatness ourselves do we inspire others to do the same and, ultimately, help to bring about further advancements in our various fields of endeavor. That's the way I see things, anyway...

Anonymous said...

Admittedly, I felt like this after seeing Ratatouille. For some reason in Incredibles, it didn't bother me. I think it's because of the Syndrome character, as others have stated. I think Mr Incredible *did* come to the revelation that he caused Buddy to grow up to be a villan--he was actually doing the same to Buddy as the lawyers did to him when the Supers were told to go into hiding. I think that's a great dynamic, but you have to read between the lines to see it. Both of them chose to react to their unrecognized talents in different ways, and I think Mr Incredible's way of dealing with it makes him more appealing and relatable.

In Ratatouille, I felt that Remy was a bit self-centered, and for some reason it just kinda screamed "Brad Bird telling his life story" to me. I wasn't cheering him on, because he seemed to only care about attaining his own goals, and when his dad showed him what should have been a "world-view" changing sight on the street, Remy ended up just shrugging it off instead of actually dealing with that reality. I felt like it should have thrown him for a loop, at least temporarily, but it didn't.

Even so, I do not think that his films deserve to be called facist. One thing I think the Incredibles was stating is that there is a danger when people aren't recognized for their talents (Syndrome), which to me is a reality that goes side by side with not being ego-centric and recognizing all people.

The small thing you have to look for in Ratatouille, was that even though Linguini never became a good chef, he did end up having a talent at being a waiter. (Even though this is realistic, I feel that anyone can get BETTER at anything if they put effort into it, even though all of us won't be the next Monet, we didn't see Linguini learn *anything*)

The fact is, life does not live by politically correct rules, and I don't think it should. At the same time, I don't think one should be self-centered and look down on others. So am I speaking out both sides of my mouth? Yes, but I think Brad's films are too.

Good point about 2 equaly talented characters competeing--I would like to see how he would handle that in a film.

Anonymous said...

One more reason why I think Mr Incredible is more appealing and easily relatable than Remy, is because Mr Incredible's ultimate self-fulfillment actually comes from helping other people. He *hated* that he couldn't save the guy getting mugged in the alley. He hated his job, but he cheated the system by still trying to help out the customers. When he ended up putting himself first, he got himself into trouble, keeping a secret from the family, and getting trapped on the island. His family saved him, and their strengths came from coming together as a family.

Remy...I'm not sure I can say his character is that complex. His ultimate self-fulfillment is to be a cook, and I don't think he really learns how to sacrifice himself for someone else. Mr Incredible does, and *wants* to sacrifice himself to save others.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

On another note, I think there's another interesting conclusion to this. It's an example of why I personally think dramatic feature animation should overall be written by one person, instead of a group of writers, storyboarders, etc. I have the feeling Bird keeps a much tighter leash on his storyboard team than other directors, especially those at other studios. It feels that in the past and at other studios the storyboarders are often actually creating the story, while with Bird it feels as if the storyboarders "just" find a way to tell the story. I think these personality traits coming through add a whole other level of interest to his films. They feel more rich than, say, Shrek or Aladdin (no matter how much you might like those films).

Mark Mayerson said...

Peter, I carefully chose the idea of two equally talented protagonists. Imagine in Ratatouille if Remy was not the best cook in Paris or even in the kitchen at Gusteau's. Yes, he's still talented and capable, but not the absolute best. His ambition to cook and to change recipes takes on a different perspective if he was being blocked for quality reasons as opposed to persecution.

Syndrome is clearly a villain because he kills. Again, consider how different The Incredibles would have been if Syndrome challenged Mr. Incredible in a way that was a morally acceptable contest as opposed to a genocidal plot.

I'm not saying that Bird should have made either of the above stories. I just wonder if Bird's world view and characters are flexible enough to deal with a more level playing field. Bird's main characters are exceptional and I wonder if he could build a story around a character that was less than that.

Like you, I admire Bird's films enormously. One reason is because they're rich enough to examine and analyze. The fact that I'm raising these issues shouldn't imply that I think the films are failures. Failed films are rarely worth thinking about.

Anonymous (and I can't tell if all the anonymouses are the same person or several), I think we have to cut Bird some slack because he inherited this film and didn't create it from scratch. I think that Bird pulled off something of a miracle, taking a film that was halfway through production and reworking it successfully while still hitting the release date. I don't doubt that there is much that Bird would have done differently if he had started on the film earlier.

Benjamin, I think that Bird controls the stories of the films he works on at least as tightly as anyone else working in animation today. I agree with you that many animated features feel patched together. It's inevitable that several story people will work on separate segments, but in Bird's case he manages to make sure that those segments are thematically and tonally consistent.

Pete Emslie said...

In regards to "Ratatouille", I just don't think it would make sense to have a scenario where Remy is pitted against a talented human chef, each one vying to be the best. The whole premise of the film requires that Remy remain unseen to the humans, as they would never believe that a rat is capable of human activity. Remy would still need to compete by way of using Linguini, his human "puppet", as his front. Seriously, I can't see how it could work.

The idea of two protagonists competing against each other for individual goals is a fairly rare premise in the history of animated films. Offhand, I can only think of two features that sort of fit that description, though I'm sure there are others. In "Toy Story", both Woody and Buzz are good guys, with Woody trying to reclaim his distinction of being Andy's favourite toy. Ultimately, when they both end up in a dangerous predicament, they have to pool their talents and work together to get back to the safety of Andy's place and allow the chips to fall where they may as to whom Andy loves best. A satisfying stalemate is created with the birthday gift of the puppy at the finale that would appear to trump them both.

In "The Jungle Book", both Bagheera and Baloo are competing for what they both consider the best future for Mowgli. Bagheera represents Reason, with his conviction that Mowgli will be better protected in the confines of the village surrounded by his own kind. Baloo represents Emotion, believing that Mowgli would be happier living a life of leisure in the jungle with him, though it does mean staying alert to the dangers that lurk all around. Again, neither one can claim a complete victory by the end, as it is the allure of the young girl who leads Mowgli voluntarily into the village gates, thereby creating a compromise of Reason brought about by Emotion.

Quite honestly, I don't know how you would handle a cooking match between Remy and an equally heroic human competitor. Would one triumph over the other or would a stalemate occur as in the other films I've noted? I think Brad Bird told the story in the only way possible, by pitting tiny Remy against all of the odds of the human world, and overcoming all of the obstacles through perseverance, talent, and keeping alert to the dangers he faced. This brings the film to a satisfying Capra-esque conclusion, where all of the participants are forced to challenge their preconceptions and made to understand.

Anonymous said...

Quite honestly, I don't know how you would handle a cooking match between Remy and an equally heroic human competitor

Sorry to say but this brings the show "Iron Chef" to my mind.

Anonymous said...

Pete -- which talentless hacks wth the drawing ability of a 5 to 12 year-old have their own shows? I'd love to see them.

Most shows I see out there are created by (cough) writers -- whose drawing abilities I haven't seen.

And wow! Why this constant downer on Flash? Anyone with the ability to draw should embrace it. Why slide stuff around? -- you do realize that there are individual frames on that timeline -- just like in traditional animation? Does horizontal orientation rather than vertical make it too different from a dope sheet for it to make sense?

If animation looks slidey and shifty -- it's by choice, lack of ability or lack of ambition.

It's a poor craftsman that blames his tools.

Perhaps one should look to the producers who set the schedules and budgets -- that is the true restriction which forces animators to crank out 1 minute of animation a week. Good luck doing that traditionally -- and inking it -- and compositing it -- and coloring it.

Pete Emslie said...

To that last Mr. "Anonymous":

In my opinion, most of what comprises "Adult Swim" is drawn at the level of a young highschooler at best. An atrocity like "12 Ounce Mouse" is no better than the scrawls of a 5 year old. There are also several shows created here in Canada that are designed at no better than highschool level of ability. One CBC show that I cringe at is definitely drawn deliberately at a 5 year old level. Maybe some animators are happy working on such shows and more power to them, but I'd find it depressing to work on stuff like that myself. Just my personal bias, I'm afraid.

As for Flash animation, even at it's best I find it inherently limited. A show like "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" is decently designed in terms of graphic art, but the animation is still severely limited, moving no more than cutouts do. Heads move from front to side views in one frame with a "swoosh" sound to cover the speed. Sometimes a 3/4 view inbetween is contrived by shifting the facial features across the face first before the final head replacement. Squash and stretch is achieved primitively through simple vertical or horizontal distortion of shape, not like hand-drawn animation which does it more organically with a feel for compressing the flesh and muscle.

Look, you don't have to agree with me on this, but it is my bias and I'm not going to "embrace" Flash until the day that it can replicate the look of organic hand-drawn TV animation like any of the early Hanna-Barbera shows. In the meantime, would it be asking too much of all you "Anonymous" types to at least come up with individual online pseudonyms so that we can sort you all out? Thank you.

Pete Emslie said...

One last point:

Anonymous said: "Perhaps one should look to the producers who set the schedules and budgets -- that is the true restriction which forces animators to crank out 1 minute of animation a week. Good luck doing that traditionally -- and inking it -- and compositing it -- and coloring it."

On this you'll get no argument from me. Of course I lay the blame at the feet of those who are funding the shows for peanuts, as well as the producers who accept those cheapskate conditions. Ultimately it's the artists who suffer the consequences, as they work constant overtime (without extra pay up here in the union-less Canadian studios), never knowing where they're going once their contract is up, and always under the constant threat of layoff if they don't meet the unreasonable quotas.

15 years ago we had shows on TV like "Ren and Stimpy", "Animaniacs", "Duck Tales" and all the Nicktoons, etc. I'm not saying they were all wonderful, but they all still employed animators who were able to use their drawing skills and the animation was still of the organic, hand-drawn variety, with a fair amount of tried and true animation principles at work, even if it was somewhat limited by TV budgets. Today, nobody wants to invest enough to create anything of lasting value. Ever notice how many of these Flash shows come and go so quickly from the TV schedule? Talk about your "Flash" in the pan...

Boris Hiestand said...

TV has always been of an inferior quality. Other than that, man what an amazing post this has been! Wonderful insights and discussions. Thanks mark, Pete and however many anonymouses!

Anonymous said...

I think that what Bird is talking about being an artist...a true artist...
Something that one does with the heart, that needs great effort and love, remy follows his intuition to do what he ahs to do...and he leaves home, he flies and anyway ..what is his victory but doing what he loves?
I could see myself as an artist reflected in that story...and my own struggle against the dark forces of our capitalist culture to destroy art...most of cartoons are today like fast food...bad served...and pixar has shown us that they are chefs...
best regards,

Anonymous said...

In those films, Woody and Lightning McQueen attempt to lead out of ego and only discover happiness when they forsake ambition.

They definitely didn't forsake ambition. I'm not sure what ambition Woody really had except to be Andy's #1, in which case all he did was deal with his ego. McQueen didn't give up racing or give up trying to be the best just because he decided not to win that race. His best years were still ahead of him, and he knew it. Nice job missing the point of that ending and the point of the movie.