With its latest film, Pixar manages to achieve something that few other big Hollywood films do these days: a convincing reality. The body language & emotions of the characters, the machinations of the kitchen, the sights and sounds of Paris, and the dice of the celery, Ratatouille gets it all right, down to the seemingly insignificant details. As we walked out of the movie, my wife, who has spent time cooking in restaurants (with Daniel Boulud, even), couldn’t stop talking about how well the movie captured the workings of the kitchen. To be sure, a G-rated kitchen but a true kitchen nonetheless.
I’m not quite sure how this is possible, but the people in Ratatouille acted more like real people than the actors in many recent live action movies (especially the rats), like they had realistic histories and motivations that governed their actions instead of feeling scripted and fake. The world of the movie felt as though it had existed before the opening credits and would continue after the curtain fell. Systems that have arisen through years, decades, centuries, millennia of careful evolution and interplay with one another were represented accurately and with care. In The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander writes of the quality without a name:
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named. The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of a person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
Pixar’s search for this quality in the making of Ratatouille is impressive. And in a way, necessary. In order to draw the audience into the film and make them forget that they’re watching animated characters in an animated world, the filmmakers need to get everything right. Motions too exaggerated, motivations glossed over, plot too uncoordinated, and the whole thing loses its sense of authenticity. People need to act like people, omelettes need to sag off of spatulas like omelettes, and the only woman chef in a haute cuisine French kitchen needs to behave accordingly.
This is an interesting state of affairs. In comparison, the live action movies have become the cartoons. Not all of them, but certainly many Hollywood movies have. Spidey 3, Transformers (I’m guessing), Die Hard 4 (guessing again), anything Eddie Murphy has made since the mid-80s, Wild Hogs, Blades of Glory, RV, etc. etc. I could go on and on. So what are we to make of a cartoon that seems more real than most live action movies? How about we stop thinking of them as cartoons or kids movies or animated films and start considering them as just plain movies? I’d put Pixar’s five best films — Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and let’s throw Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant in for good measure — among the best big budget films made in the last 10 years, no caveats required.
Oh, and I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that Ratatouille also has something to say about critics and criticism, a topic that’s currently under debate in foodie circles and has been discussed many times in different areas of the blogosphere. It almost seems as though the film’s message is aimed partially at bloggers, and for those that care to listen, that message is both encouraging and enlightening.