Monday, July 09, 2007

New Animation: Ratatouille (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Writer-director Brad Bird's Ratatouille opens with a talking head from food critic Anton Ego, in which the Peter O'Toole-voiced pundit disputes legendary TV food personality Gusteau's (Brad Garrett) claim that everyone can cook. Enter the film's protagonist rat Remy (Patton Oswalt), an admirer of human beings - contrary to his father's wisdom - and their ability to not only survive but also to "experience and create," as well as the possessor of a very un-rodent like refined palette. With the latter acumen and the company of the hovering, transparent ghost of the late Gusteau, Remy endeavors to prove his maestro's point, first in his furtive visits to widow's farm house, and subsequently in the kitchen of Gusteau's eponymous Parisian eatery. (Each offers a similarly disgusting visual of a space besieged by the Remy and his kin.)

Once in the kitchen of Gusteau's, the suddenly silent rodent forges a puppetmaster-marionette relationship with gangly new hire Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), himself completely helpless in the kitchen. Here, Remy fulfills the role of manipulator, thus securing an allegorical meanining in their relationship that is as pertinent to animated cinema than it is to its conventional photography-based format. Similarly, the licensing of Gusteau's image for microwavable burritos and bagel bites figures Bird's own creative product over and above the mass-produced items (animated and otherwise) from which Ratatouille is distingusihed.

Of course, the fact that Ratatouille lacks a human hand in its actualization potentially problematizes its anti-assembly line ethos. To this point, Bird's insistence that anyone can create - which is subsequently highlighted in a second speech by Ego where he notes that he saw something completely new in the kitchen - is itself a defense of the creative work accomplished in its this piece of computer-based animation. In Ratatouille we have a creator who is not human, but who has nonetheless created a work of a superlative aesthetic character that is simultaneously (and against expectations perhaps) warm. The true measure of computer-based animation is not simply its graphic successes, but moreover its status as a truly human art.

If therefore it seems as though Bird has made a bold claim for his own creation, fortunately for the director his filmmaking talents are more than equal to the task described in the film's rhetoric. Indeed, the director of the fine The Iron Giant (1999) and the extraordinary The Incredibles (2004), to date the finest work of American animation thus far this decade (in the opinion of Anderson), has again succeeded in creating a work of admirable visual narration. As with the latter in particular, Bird again adopts a facsimile of his protagonists' point-of-view, viscerally following his minute, fleet-footed hero as he races in and out of the tight spaces for which Bird's medium seems particularly well-suited. However, it is less his action direction capabilities (as advanced as they may be) then his attention to the details of his subjects: to the rats wet hair - this is the film where Pixar has finally overcome its textural limitations, achieving an unforeseen lightness; to the plating of an updated variation on the film's epnoymous dish that truly underscore Bird's artistry. Surely, Ratatouille is a work of total art. It is the rare piece of animation that is not intended primarily to sell toys.

Then again, Ratatouille is equally a work of premiere entertainment. In fact, when Ego receives the aforementioned plate, an old favorite transporting him back to the time of his childhood and memories of his mother, Ego drops his notebook and simply savors the dish before him. If Bird is addressing critics directly, he suggests that ultimate justification of Ratatouille like the eponymous plate on the dish, is enjoyment. The first rule is that the food tastes good, and that popular cinema be entertaining. With this baseline necessity, the aesthetic elaborations of each may be made.

As with the director's ode to human excellence The Incredibles, there may be no American filmmaker today as devoted to human greatness as is Bird. The irony, of course, is that Bird remains likewise the leading artist in the cinema's least human incarnation.

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