“So many people have greatness in them…it’s just coaching it out of them.”
— Brad Bird, Director of Ratatouille
All those years ago, we bristled at the thought of television or movies “teaching” us things. We may now look back fondly at all of those times that G.I. Joe told us “…and knowing is half the battle!”, but back then, we rolled our eyes. Why? Because our cartoon where people were running around and trying to blow each other up was tempered every week with an awkwardly pointed-out moral statement. We didn’t want our TV teaching us math, or manners, or that being nice to each other was really groovy. We just wanted entertainment, and crude humor, and maybe an explosion or three. Was that too much to ask?
Given these memories, the subtlety with which modern TV and cinema geared toward children manages to work in lessons and education relating to the world around us continues to astound me. From Ratatouille, kids might learn that brilliance can come from unexpected places, that a swarm of rats can escape a shotgun attack relatively unscathed, and that critics are only cranky because everything basically sucks. That last one’s an especially handy lesson for my own kids.
How does Pixar get away with teaching lessons in its movies? In all seriousness, Ratatouille drives home points that have been driven home before in far less believable ways; clichés in lesser hands, like “you can’t judge a book by its cover” and “family will always be there for you”, would go down like particularly bitter spoonfuls of medicine. It’s not as though Ratatouille is a particularly “edgy” movie in the Hollywood sense. There are very few in-jokes for the adults (the Shrek series’ specialty) or bits of questionable potty humor that the kids love because they know how much mom ‘n dad hate it. Rather, it’s wholesome entertainment that everyone’s going to be happy with because it pulls off the feat of managing to be hilarious and engaging while offending pretty much nobody.
So how does Pixar do it? By being real.
Intuitively, that’s a ridiculous statement. We’re talking about a movie about a talking rat who can sit in the chef’s hat of an adolescently awkward garbage boy and get him to cook brilliantly by pulling his hair in just the right way. There’s nothing real about it, in concept.
Still, it was real enough that European animal rights organizations sent out pre-emptive warnings about rats, reminding those who might be so moved by Ratatouille as to purchase one of the furry creatures that, well, rats live for a long time, so be prepared to take care of them for a long time. The fear, of course, is that the owner of a rat might not have as loud a conscience as, say, a dog or a cat owner when it comes to leaving the pet of choice on a street somewhere. Another group sent out missives reminding parents to teach kids to avoid the rats and mice near our homes and in our streets; they could still carry disease, and chances are, no matter how gently you try to pick one up, it will probably bite you.
It all seems like common sense, overactive organizations making something out of nothing, until you actually see the film. The rats are hyperrealistically animated, with perfectly flowing fur and little feet that legitimately scurry when all four are being used, and yet they carry with them the most realistic of human emotions: jealousy, longing, bliss, and frustration are all perfectly portrayed in the faces of Remy and his family, blurring the lines of realism by putting those very human emotions on a very realistic-looking rat. To go from the squirm-inducing sight of the exodus of rats from the house of the old woman to a point where we are identifying with them, thinking of them as little furry people, is a masterstroke of direction.
In an interesting move, one of the DVD’s exclusive extras thumbs its nose at the perception of rats as dirty animals by telling a historical tale of the evolution of rat-dom via a variety of animation styles. Despite that segment’s ultimate resolution, it’s yet another way to drive home to children that rats are merely misunderstood creatures, a message that it’s tough to be entirely comfortable with given the film’s target audience. Where deriving such a conclusion from such a fantastical film seems like a bit of a stretch, spelling it out the way this particular short does gives it the air of utter nonfiction, an educational tale told in an entertaining way. While the facts about rats are helpful, thank you, I too, worry that my kids might think it OK to pick up a rat next time they see one. More successful is in the extras is “Lifted”, the short that preceded Ratatouille in the theater, a unique little tale without words in which we identify far more with the alien characters than the humans.
Both those shorts are just icing on the incredibly well-made cake that is Ratatouille. The hyperrealism that Brad Bird has pulled off in this film leads to characters that prompt us to laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry. Sure, there are human characters as well, each of whom have their own stories and identifiable traits, but it’s not such a feat to give a human humanity. In giving rats humanity, Pixar has created one of the greatest films of the year. Whether you have kids or not, you owe it to yourself to see this brilliant feat in action.