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I saw Ratatouille this weekend and everything you’ve
read about how good a film they’ve animated is true. It’s the highest
rated film of the year (see Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes) with good reason. The team at Pixar
has created a world that is rich, lush, and heavily detailed. They told
a story that, while simple at its core, is heartfelt and meaningful.
They populated the world with characters who are engaging on multiple
levels, conflicted, and all too fallible. Ratatouille had action,
intrigue, romance, villains, characters overcoming their limitations,
… indeed all the ingredients for a masterpiece animated feast are
there. So why did I leave with an empty feeling in my stomach?

sure part of that had to do with sitting watching marvelous food dishes
be prepared for an hour and a half while only having the smell of movie
popcorn to satisfy my appetite (indeed, if there was ever a candidate
for smell-a-vision Ratatouille is it). But it was not the lack of food
that had me unsettled. It was a very enjoyable film, more enjoyable
than a film about a rat who wants to cook should be.

As I
watched the wonderfully imagined and animated end credits, I started to
wonder if this is what people felt at the end of seeing Walt Disney’s
Snow White, the first feature length animated film, back in 1939. The
only animation the public had seen up to that point was of the short
form. A form that relied heavily on gags and friendly animated
characters to make people laugh. But Snow White took the art form to a
whole new level with rich backgrounds, human like characters, plot and
motivation you’d expect from Academy Award films.

When the
audience left those first Snow White screenings one of the comments
they made was that it was the most ‘real’ film they’d ever seen.
Strangely enough I’ve read that same comment about Ratatouille. I’m not
saying Ratatouille will have the same lasting impact that Walt Disney’s
Masterpiece Snow White had upon the industry (Snow White is still my
personal favorite animated film of all time). But I do feel that
Ratatouille represents something new.

First, there was the rich, incredibly realized animation, with such attention
to detail that must have required so much research and focus to get
things right. While you never quite left the animated world, you had the feeling it was a complete one.

there is almost no condescension to children (the supposed target
audience for animation) in Ratatouille. In fact, other than the conceit
that the main character is a Rat (and has family and friends who are
rats) this is a film aimed squarely at the sensitivities of adults. If
Remy had been replaced by some other oppressed minority (for the sake
of France, let’s say a Roma/Gypsy) it would be playing to art festival
crowds instead of the popular masses.

There is a gray area that Pixar
relishes operating in. They refuse to talk down to children while at
the same time continually elevating the animation art form. Monster’s
Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles , and now Ratatouille have very heavy
and scary moments. They deal directly with big concepts like death and
personal responsibility and refuse to sugar coat them. Again, there are
direct parallels to Snow White here (remember the forest scene).

With Ratatouille, animated film, at least the way Brad Bird and Pixar
produce it, stands at a cross-roads similar to where Walt Disney stood
after Pinocchio and Fantasia. They can go on along the path they’re
following and convert the medium into something new that appeals to
adults while not being tethered to the ‘family film’ rules. This is the
fiscally risky route (see the initial box office results for Fantasia).
But the greater the risk, the greater the reward (a theme common to Pixar films, not coincidentally I imagine). 

they can return to something more appealing to the kid in all of us
(and more entertaining for those who actually are kids). Think Dumbo,
Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. When those films
were released they were anything but conventional. Indeed Sleeping
Beauty stands as a singular masterpiece of art. The irony is that while
they’re all commercially less risky, that’s not to say they were all
box office successes. Nor is it to say there is a simple formula to
follow. It’s harder to swing for the fences when you’re deliberately
using a shorter bat as Walt Disney found out during and after WWII. In
modern day animation this method isn’t resulting in any box office gold
right now either (see recent Dreamworks and WDAS releases). 

I’d very much love for Pixar
to be able to pull off both (genre busting and wide commercial appeal)
at the same time. But there are precious few examples of animated films
that have done so. Right now those films are Snow White, The Lion King,
Finding Nemo and perhaps a few others. Overtime the audiences usually catch up to the film and it makes money on DVD or in merchandise. Pixar’s
‘Cars’ had over $2 billion in merchandise sales last year, for
instance. I expect the same to happen with Ratatouille. Although it’s
opening slow, audiences will eventually catch up to it.

So they
way I see it, Pixar really has no choice but to keep moving forward
with Walt’s Way. The way that resulted in Snow White, Pinocchio, and
Fantasia. To divert is to risk greater financial ruin with mediocre
product; where as having a number of films with decent profitability
and the occasional box office break-through means continued success for
the studio. That emptiness in my stomach was just the lurch realizing
what a big step Pixar had made with Ratatouille.

That is not the
conclusion I thought I would arrive at when I sat down to write this
piece. Indeed, I had convinced myself that Pixar had strayed too far
away from the traditional animated children’s film with Ratatouille.
But what is a traditional animated children’s film? That is decided
anew with every genre busting film that’s released. All you can do is
to find what you love and keep doing it to the best of your ability.
That’s the lesson of Ratatouille and the philosophy behind Pixar. That
Walt’s Way and it’s a recipe for success for us all.