On Feb. 24 — the WGA strike permitting — millions will watch on ABC and worldwide as the Oscar for best animated feature film of 2006 goes to Ratatouille. And I say phooey.
This film has been shoved down our throats by Disney and blocs of herding-instinct critics since day one, and it’s just not that good — at least, conceptually and storywise. Sure, visually it’s a beauty to behold, thanks to today’s state-of-the-art computer animation. But what’s so unusual about that? And besides, making cuddly, adorable heroes out of real-looking CG rats is nuts. Roiling hordes of vile, scurrying rats headed to a KITCHEN — where food is prepared — food we’re supposed to eat — that’s entertainment? The film also squandered its setting of Paris by making scene after scene set inside a restaurant kitchen or a rat’s sewer, and its awkward, beyond-shaky plot about a symbiotic relationship between a rat gourmet and man cook was just plain awful.
Yet Ratatouille got almost universal acclaim, as almost everyone jumped on the bandwagon and even hysterically shouted down any dissent on Internet chat boards. (Gee, wonder if a studio has ever thought to hire people to do this dirty work for them?) Of course, even in profit, Ratatouille continued Pixar’s box-office slide from the stratosphere, but a studio can’t have everything.
All this leads me to believe critics and the public haven’t figured some things out yet in this new era of high regard extended to animated features, an era which formally began when they got their own Oscar category for best animated feature film in 2001.
It’s the story, stupid. And a great story was what CG films clearly had over traditional animation in CG’s early years. Even with Toy Story’s comparatively crude CG by today’s standards, CG films’ writing was edgy, clever, contemporary and, like their artwork, more real and relatable. Flat, 2D, traditional animation still stuck to childlike adventures and comedies in a sad case of arrested development. (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas or Atlantis: The Lost Empire anyone?)
But no more than those films, Ratatouille did not deliver a great story, either. In fact, its concept was horrible.
Ever seen a rat up close? Ever had one in your home? Bad enough in your attic — think about rats in your kitchen. Now think about the disease and filth that vermin spread. Now enjoy your popcorn and soda while you watch rats prepare food in a kitchen in a real-looking CG movie.
Riiiiight. Yet Ratatouille got knee-jerk adulation, ostensibly for being from a studio, Disney/Pixar, that’s been on a roll, as if they could do no wrong. And ostensibly for being so gosh-darn nice to look at. Why, look at the lavish details in the hair on the rats’ hides!
You know what? George Lucas’ three Star Wars prequels were gosh-darn nice to look at, too — but their stories and characters were wretched. Those films were more about trading on past glories and selling a merchandise campaign than creating legitimate plots. And the same goes for Ratatouille, which gets ridiculous credit for form over substance.
So what was the best animated feature of 2006? Easy: The Simpsons Movie. No, it wasn’t as glossy and slick as the rat flick. In fact, it takes perverse pride in being flat, 2D and “ugly,” as shown in the trailers added to its new DVD. But for what it was — taking a limited-budget TV show to the big screen — it looked great, tweaking just enough to be more elaborate for theaters, but not enough to lose its essential, hard-earned and perversely charming identity.
Yet even so, that’s not what’s important — or it shouldn’t be. What’s important, or should be, are stories and characters, as the WGA is reminding us with its current strike. If it’s not on the page, it won’t be on the screen, and on the page The Simpsons Movie kicks Ratatouille’s butt.
Well, what did you expect? The longest-running, most inspired, most subversive comedy series ever to air on prime-time broadcast TV, The Simpsons is the real deal in terms of writing and characterization, just as it’s always been. And the expanded plot for feature length (Homer poisons Springfield’s water supply, the city is placed under a dome, the family escapes but returns) was as good as any done for TV, just longer. That’s not to mention characters uniformly more fascinating than a rat who wants to live out his dreams by being a gourmet chef for food snobs (huh?).
I’m not saying cartoon rodents can’t entertain. Take Disney’s own Mickey Mouse. But he might as well be a talking and upright-walking dog like Goofy, since he’s more humanlike than animal in his broad, cartoonish way.
But also take The Simpsons, which gives us entertaining rodents routinely. That includes the opening sequence of its film, a cartoon within the cartoon where you’ll find Itchy, the diabolical rodent who torments poor kitty Scratchy with hyperbolized violence inspired by classic Warner Bros. shorts.
Now that’s a rat — making mischief, not making dishes for food snobs. In effect, Ratatouille was all about snobbery, and not just for food, but for CG gloss.
Give me comparative ugliness with meat on its bones any day. Give me timely, topical, cut-to-the-chase humor. Give me The Simpsons, which has been good enough to win 23 Emmys, even if its movie probably won’t win a single Oscar.