Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ratatouille (Spoilers)

[The Commonplace Book entry will go up tomorrow. I wanted to put this out now, because something similar appeared on theonionavclub blog, and regretted not putting it up when I wrote it Sunday night.]

I can think of only a handful of children's entertainment on a level better than Ratatouille: Chicken Run, Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Nightmare before Christmas, The Emperor's New Groove, The Triplets of Bellville, Iron Giant (from Ratatouille director Brad Bird), Muppets. If we think it is fair to compare TV shows to film in this regard, I would add Charlie and Lola and Pocoyo (though Pocoyo is for little-littles). If we can expand to teen fare I will include Samurai Jack and Avatar, and a few episodes of Batman Animated and Teen Titans.

The film is simply beautiful -- literally every hair is perfectly rendered, as is Paris. Correspondence, rain, and building fronts are so fully created they look like live action. The action scenes are swift and exciting and the story is paced and structured excellently -- enough action to keep things exciting, but enough time spend on happy stuff as well. Brad Bird knows how to tell a story. It is engrossing, from beginning to end. The jokes are great but they tend to rely on a visual, or the delivery. Chicken Run really wins on verbal humor, which I do not think a perfect kids movie can be without. (I think I will post soon on why Chicken Run is one of my favorite films of all time).

Special mention should go to every scene starring Anton Ego, voiced perfectly by Peter O'Toole (even Ian McKellen could not have done a better job with the character). With a type-writer that looks like a skull, in a coffin shaped room, looking like the apotheosis of the Adams Family, he bring a very good movie a notch up every time he is on screen. When he tastes the food I laughed and cried at the same time, no exaggeration. If you do not you have no heart. Further special mention should go to the opening short, my favorite of the Pixar shorts.

But here a complaint (though not an aesthetic one): women have nothing to do in Pixar movies, as wonderful as they are, and Ratatouille is especially egregious in this regard. Jeanne Garafalo's Collette simply has nothing to do. As in the Incredibles, Bird sets forth his thesis, not entirely wrong and kind of daring in a kid's film, that some people are just born special. The rest of the population, in Bird's view, just needs to accept their low status, or risk turning into villains like the bad guy in the Incredibles (Batman has no place in Bird's superhero world; this half of Bird's thesis seems off). In the end it turns out our useless human "chef" Linguini has a talent, though a lesser one than our genius; Collette was never a good chef and will never be anything but the girlfriend. Besides the old woman in the opening sequence, she is the only female character in the movie, including EVERY rat. The next Pixar movie will be about a robot. Seriously guys -- get some female characters that are not hangers on. It will make your movies more interesting. They will not give your movie cooties.

14 comments:

Jason Powell said...

Would really like to read your review of "Chicken Run." That is one of my favorite films. I'll look forward to you telling me why I like it so much (as you did in your book with "The Killing Joke" and "Tom Strong", to name but two)!

Pat Moler said...

What about Elasti-girl/woman and Violet in the Incredibles? They played important parts.

neilshyminsky said...

I was incredibly disturbed by The Incredibles for the same 'some people are born special and those who aren't have to accept it' theme. It felt (appropriately, perhaps) like a riff on the anti-commie superhero comics - here we have some special people who are told they have to pretend that everyone is equal. And naturally we have a villain who, murderous intentions aside, wants to make everyone equally special and eliminate the privilege that the Incredibles were born with. (Heaven forbid!)

And in the end we're told that both are unacceptable options, and that those who are special should not be hindered or limited by the government or the weak. Not only is your destiny your own, but it's something you're born with. That's just twisted.

James said...

I'm with Neil on The Incredibles, Bird's thesis stops me from loving a movie I otherwise might.

Actually, there are a lot of reasons I can't get too excited about Pixar movies, most of them aesthetic. A big one is that - and I know most animation is done like this nowadays - all the dialogue is recorded seperately*, which I always find really apparent in the performances. It's exacerbated by the chatty, ad-libby tone of most Pixar scripts, since the patter and overlapping of lines has to be constructed by the careful editing and re-cutting of dialogue. That construction seems really obvious to me, and leaves me cold.

*Again, I'm aware there are exceptions - Billy Crystal and John Goodman did their lines together, I think - but not enough.

Faur said...

What about Dori the fish from Finding Nemo? She's the best character in any Pixar movie.

liam said...

i thought about dori and the female incredibles right away, as well. but sara pointed out that though add significantly to those movies, the main thrust of nemo and incredibles is a father and son tale.

sara d. reiss said...

Just to flesh out a bit liam's note on a point I made in a recent conversation we had

It is not that there are NO female characters in Pixar films, and certainly Elle DeGeneres's Dory made Nemo what it was, but think about what that character might have been had some other, less gifted comedienne (or perhaps comedian) had not voiced the character. Dory is just a supporting player. Who are you really pulling for or identifying with the most? And if pressed to summarize the plot of the movie what would you say of Dory, other than she was really funny?

Same for the mother and daughter in the Incredibles, although they are def. NOT comedic relief, and yes they do, I suppose, go through their own journies through the film and reach their own "goals". But what struck me is how, a year or so later, I cannot really recall their characters all to clearly, what exactly the point of them was, other than super-powered family members their to flesh out the stories/journies of the Father and Son. And in the end, it is the son we're routing for in that race (odd how I can recall the last scene about the son, as well as the first scene where he's not allowed to succeed, but cannot at all recall any of the mother or daughter scenes with much clarity. Perhaps that is my own fault.

I have not seen cars, but my nephew love it and from the multitudes of toys he has and scenes he quotes, I'm assuming that the one "female" car is either comedy relief, a suppporting player, or love interest.

What really pissed me off about ratatouille, and really confuses me that no reviewer or critic has mentioned this, is that we are presented with a female character who pretty much literally says how she's the only friggin female in the damned film and it was through being tough and being good that got her to where she is in this "mans world" but then after this little girl power speech she is relegated to not just being the love interest/background decoration, arm candy. Plus, she's mediocre and has no real talent, which, in mr. bird's world means she's useless and needs to cede way for the, y'know, geniuses with penises.

Listen, I try to remain as rational as possible when it comes to feminism and gender politics. But in an age where pop culture is engendering (heh) our children with their future values, and when we rely on culture to pretty much stand in for parenting and give us role models, it's sad to see this giant of children's cinema, a giant that isn't making lazy, unintelligent pap, drop this ball in such an obvious way. Even princess friggin fiona has a little more prescence and balls.

also, their next movie stars yet another male protagonist.

Next Up: where are the funny women in adult swim???

sara d. reiss said...

to sort of support my, very hastily, messily written, comment above, here's a link to a succint little blog post about my very feelings of Pixar (Like their movies, would love it if they made a movie with a female protagonist, not just a supporting player): http://www.michaelhanscom.com/eclecticism/2007/07/01/rataphooey/#comment-37051

Dante Kleinberg said...

Is Wall*E a male protagonist? It's a guy's name sure but it's still a robot.

Anyway, I saw Ratatouille this weekend, posted my analysis on my blog today, but at no time did I really consider at the gender roles in the movie, because I find the issue to be irrelevant.

Here's the thing: I don't believe an artist has a responsibility to showcase diversity in their work of art. If you're a white dude, you're gonna write mostly about white dudes (or white dude-voiced cartoon characters). If you look at the black-centric, asian-centric, women-centric, etc. stuff out there, it's usually created by someone from that group, with a few exceptions here or there.

So? What's the biggie? If I concede any moral responsibility in art, and I'm not sure I want to, I might go along with John Gardner's idea of moral fiction -- in that the message of the movie shouldn't be a horrible immoral message. Like "give up" or "kill yourself" or "it's okay to hurt people". But you're not obligated to promote equality or diversity if that's not part of your story.

Sara: If you want women-centric Pixar movies, come up with the golden pitch and try to get a job there.

Geoff Klock said...

Dante: that is a technicality about Wall*E. Again, like saying string music is cat gut scratching wire -- it is, but come on.

Let me start by reminding you I did say in the blog post that the gender issue was not an aesthetic complaint. In fact I might even be willing to concede your point and say that an artist does not have the responsibility to showcase diversity.

BUT: in Ratatouille, Collette was created as a female character, and one who gave a little speech about how she is the only woman cook and she is tough and it is hard to get ahead in a man's world. NOW, the issue is not diversity but committment to the characters you created. having no female rats -- fine, if that is what you want. A discussion of why there are no female rats is a conversation that
is outside the range of the film. But Collette is IN the film and her speech about gender IN THE FILM highlights a social issue. Now it is fair game to complain about it what was done about the point THE FILM ITSELF RAISED. And Ratatouille abandoned that character, just let a tough interesting character, voiced by a cool actress, drift into the background.

Come to think of it, I think it may be an aesthetic point after all.

I think part of Sara's point was that if Pixar seems to have a thing for boy characters coming off so much better than girl characters, they might be resistant to such a pitch. I suppose she could start her own pixar rival but I live with her and I can tell you she is kinda busy.

I hope you are not implying she should make such a pitch INSTEAD of complaining here. Cause I complain about crap I do not do myself all the time (Blockbuster movies and comics books for example): it is what I do for a living. :)

Dante Kleinberg said...

Two issues raised, so two responses from me:

One: A product that costs money contains a promise to deliver... SOMETHING. A movie usually promises to deliver entertainment. If you're not entertained, then you may feel free to complain to your heart's content. What a movie doesn't promise is diversity, so you can't complain about the lack of it. It would be like ordering the fish & chips and then complaining no one serves fresh vegetables with meals "in this restaurant/town/day and age"

So both of you can complain all you like about a movie not entertaining you properly, and I'll never suggest you shouldn't, but in this instance, I don't see gender-diversity as a function of entertainment, and thus I don't see it as a fair point of critique.

Two: I agree that Colette's spiel about a woman in a man's world seems to bring up gender issues that do not pay off. However, that is but one interpretation. I believe there are other reasons at play here. First, his mentor character was made a woman to provide the obligatory love interest (a byproduct of what exactly? studio's desire to appeal women? vocal minority complaining not enough roles for women in "Hollywood"? whatever it is, it's a fact of moviemaking that you've gotta have it to get your picture made). Second, it's necessary the mentor be tough otherwise when Remy breaks all the rules (he has to break the rules and disagree with the mentor no matter what gender the mentor is otherwise how can he be a maverick genius?) it would have no value. It's easy to disagree with a weak, incompentent mentor.

If it were a male mentor, I don't think Sara would find Remy's disobeying of his/her orders evidence of the mentor being "mediocre" and of "no real talent". That's just the maverick genius doin' what the maverick genius, does, yo -- disobeying authority! breaking rules! defying convention!

And finally, yes she is in the background for the most part -- but she's also arguably the fifth most important character (if you put her above Remy's dad and brother and below Ego and Skinner) -- how prominent should she be? Move her up farther and she'd need a whole subplot, which means like 10-15 mins more movie.

Geoff Klock said...

Dante: Dude, I did not continue to take issue with point #1. Why are you still coming after me about it?

As for point 2: I agree she needs to be tough, and I see why the film needs a woman character -- I make no complaints about either point. I just notice that her arc is tough woman chef to no-talent girlfriend and think she should have a different arc that had something more to do with the speech she gave in the scene where she stood up for herself as a woman in a mans world. You don't need 10-15 minutes to change this arc to something else. It took how many seconds to establish the guy's skill as a super-waiter?

Dante Kleinberg said...

Goeff: My point # 1 was in response to this: "I hope you are not implying she should make such a pitch INSTEAD of complaining here. Cause I complain about crap I do not do myself all the time (Blockbuster movies and comics books for example): it is what I do for a living. :)"

I'm sorry if it seemed like I was "coming after" you though. Is my language harsh? I should add more smiley faces or something. I like you Geoff, and I dig the blog, and I really enjoy debating these things. So unless I start swearing or something (unlikely) just know my arguments are proposed with a smile.

Point #2: I'm willing to concede the flaw in her arc. The speech about being a woman in a man's world was definitely her high point (loved the knives in the sleeve) and a character's high point should not come within five minutes of their introduction and be all downhill from there. It would've been nice to see that fire again before fade out. (I can see her menacing Skinner or Ego with a knife and having to be restrained by Linguini)

You win that round Dr. Klockhammer!

Katie Davis said...

Ooh, ooh! Gender argument! Here I come!

I loved Ratatouille -- I was entertained and delighted. That the sole woman character is totally squandered, however, is a totally valid and apt criticism. The idea that you should only criticize a movie based on whether or not it entertains you is crazy. If it were true, the whole field of criticism may as well be shut down. Plus, I have been entertained by many a movie which, as a pieces of art, were garbage. There are many levels on which to criticize something, and to throw one out because the criticism is distasteful or inconvenient to you is silly.

I will say that I do think the female character was stronger than others are arguing -- she does teach the skinny no-talent cook guy, and by extension the rat, all the technical kitchen skills he doesn't know and wouldn't know without her. It isn't that she's mediocre; we are told that she's incredibly skilled and technically suprerior to everyone else. What she lacks, however, is vision, which the rat has in spades. So I think what Brad Bird was going for is that she and the cook/rat are a bonafide team, yin and yang...but instead it kinda comes out like she's the woman behind the man, more wind-beneath-his-wings bullshit. A flaw, for sure.

As for gender being "irrelevant" to movies, I call bullshit. If it were irrelevant, if it truly mattered to no one, wouldn't it be more of a mix? Wouldn't we have a roughly 1-to-1 ratio of male to female heroes in movies? The very lack of female characters belies that gender matters to someone. The problem is that for some reason, moviemakers/publishers still think that while girls can relate to boy *and* girl heroes, boys can only relate to boy heroes, so that in making a movie with a girl hero (I'm deliberately not using "heroine," thanks), you'd be possibly alienating half your audience. I'm guessing this is because the idea among young boys that girls are icky, or that being a girl is bad or at least less desirable than being a boy (think of all the insults involving doing something "like a girl") persists in our culture. That sucks and probably has lots of complicated reasons, but I'm sure having a PAUCITY OF EMPOWERED GIRL HEROES in pop culture doesn't really help things. So it's a negative feedback cycle, much like the fucking retarded "this country just isn't ready for a woman president" argument that makes me want to throw chairs at my television, which I do not do because televisions are expensive and I can't afford to buy a new one since as a woman, I only make about three-quarters of what a man holding my same job title would make.

La.

One final point: some took issue with the "some people are great, others are not -- just accept your fate" message. But I kind of like it. It's the way life is. Someone will always be smarter and better than you. I think the positive side of the message is, Some people simply will not be the best at something, and maybe that includes you. Instead of despairing, feel good about all the wonderful things you do contribute, and just be happy being who you are. But maybe I am just more optimistic about this than I am about gender issues.