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The very first review I wrote for this blog was the 2009 animated masterpiece The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous blend of Irish art, fantasy, and history which, incidentally, centers around the growth of a young artist. So what better way to mark this blog’s fifth anniversary than to look at another animated classic that masterfully expands on the themes of creativity, the nature of the artist, their work, and how public perception and greed thwarts the new and experimental?
Oh, and it’s also the first Pixar movie I’m reviewing because somehow I never got around to one in the past five years (so-so holiday specials notwithstanding).
You know, animation directors rarely get the recognition they deserve. A ton of work goes into creating each scene, each character, each frame from scratch, and it’s not surprising that two or more people usually have to share the responsibility of getting the movie out on time. Only a select few animation directors have risen to some prominence outside of their community, but not quite to the level of their live-action peers – with perhaps one exception.
Brad Bird, maybe you’ve heard of him: The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, helped kick off The Simpsons; he even made the jump to live-action and made some pretty good stuff in that medium too. I specifically say medium because, as he so rightfully stated, animation, like live-action, is a medium, a method used to produce artwork, not a genre. There is a distinct difference that studios and the public tend to ignore because of the stigma that animation is meant for children. Animation is a means to tell stories through, not a boxed-in category to dump kids’ movies into.
You’d think Bird’s passion and dedication to crafting mature stories for both adults and children would have made him a shoo-in to direct Ratatouille, especially after his Oscar win for The Incredibles. That wasn’t the case, however. Long-time animator and storyboarder Jan Pinkava got the ball rolling, but was replaced when the the film hit story troubles. Anyone who’s kept an eye on Pixar’s output will undoubtedly note that whenever a director is switched out during production (Brave, The Good Dinosaur, and depending on your POV, Toy Story 4), the resulting features wind up being, well, let’s call them a mixed bag. But in this case, bringing Bird onboard was nothing short of a godsend for Ratatouille. The film may have started as Pinkava’s brainchild, but it was Bird who really got what the story was about. His drastic changes, from redesigning the rats to be less anthropomorphic to even killing off one of the central characters, reinvented the film from the ground up, and got him his second Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
I’m happy to say that at the time this review is being wrapped up, Ratatouille is undergoing something of a critical re-evaluation and renaissance; yes, it was a big hit on release, but there was a long period of time where, despite its overwhelming success, it was something that Pixar itself seemed to have forgotten about. There were no plans for a sequel (unless you count the uproarious short “Your Friend, The Rat”), no TV series, no high demand for a consumer product line, little to no character presence in any of the Disney parks, and it wouldn’t receive a proper ride until 2014; even then, it was added to Disneyland Paris (a clone was set to open in Epcot’s World Showcase last year though it was delayed due to 2020 being…2020). For whatever reason, nobody was interested in talking about it or utilizing its potential like most of Pixar’s other films. That apparently changed as of last year; Maybe the movie gave people that comfort food for the soul they craved during quarantine, or the Kingdom Hearts 3 minigames centering around Remy controlling Sora reminded them how fun it was, or maybe it was the Ratatouille musical meme on TikTok that became so popular that they turned it into an actual musical. But I have to ask, why? Why did Ratatouille fall off the radar for so many in the first place? Well, after poking my nose in a few places, the main consensus I got from people who didn’t believe it rose up to Pixar’s lofty standards was because they considered it “boring”.
Now I try to respect most other’s opinions when it comes to animated movies, but…boring?
Is fast-paced, expressive computer animation that still holds up with what Pixar puts out today boring?
Are colorful, relatable characters in a vibrant reimagining of the City of Lights boring?
Is an original story that shows how creativity can apply to an unlikely field and an even more unlikely creator boring?
Is one of the most iconic actors of the twentieth century delivering the greatest speech about criticism and its relationship to art boring?
If your answer is no, then you’ve come to the right review blog.