Ratatouille (2007)
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Pixar is the king of the animation industry in Hollywood. Right from its first full length feature Toy Story (1995), Pixar has almost single-handedly charted out the roadmap for the industry and has inspired hundreds to take up a profession in the field of animation. Its movies have been universally identified as witty, funny, amazingly detailed and ultimate fun. But it is the final sequence of Ratatouille that takes them onto a whole new level.

The scene I’m talking about begins just after the hilarious moment where the notorious food critic Anton Ego is reminded of his mother’s cooking right after he tastes the little chef’s masterpiece – Ratatouille. He walks off from the restaurant and delivers a monologue (narrated by the formidable voice of Peter O’Toole) that may just be Pixar’s best piece of writing ever. Here is the transcript followed by the scene itself.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

What Anton says about food criticism is so applicable to film criticism and art criticism, in general.  Anton beautifully expresses how critics assume attitudes and turn down lifelong dreams with the scribble of a pen. He learns to acknowledge the effort behind every piece of work – both the inspiring and the insipid – and learns, in his own words, not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. He learns to enjoy first and judge later, be open to novelty and ultimately accept every piece of work as it is. And finally when Linguni asks what Anton would like for dinner, the latter glances at Remy and says “Surprise me”. And that is exactly what critics like Roger Ebert seem to be doing – basking in the sheer joy of cinema.


Wall-E: Pixar... Well, Pixar!

Right from the inception of fully computerized animation in Toy Story (1995), Pixar has been the best in their domain, by and large (no puns intended, hope none taken!). Time and again, I have been swept away by each one of their films. How I wish every time that some other animation company in USA made such a good film. Dreamworks came close with Madagascar (2005), but posed no threat whatsoever to the throne held by Pixar. Here they are with WALL•E, coming to the country after creating waves in the US box office. Before the film started, how I wished Pixar would falter, just a bit for just one time, to at least testify the theory that even the mightiest are not infallible. But no, not yet.

It is 29th century. Amidst the exanimate garbage wastelands, happily compacting the dump is WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), a rusty little robot with notably large eyes. There are no traces of life in the whole area. Yes, there is earth, there is fire, there is wind and there is water, but not life. WALL•E’s only source of connection comes in the form of his friend the cockroach and the only place of warmth being his home, which he carefully assembles from the scrap materials he gathers. He examines every bit of junk with his reflective yet assimilative eyes, in search of excitement. He spends his nights watching romantic numbers from the (19)60’s and trying to imitate them. The sheer silence adds to the comic intensity, proving once again that neither comedy nor animation needs dialogue for success. One wishes that this spectacular act never ends.

One great day, WALL•E notices an elegant robot dislodging from a large spaceship that has landed. It is the Eve of this defunct Garden of Eden, the angel of death floating in air, the femme fatale from the future, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She’s like nothing he has ever seen and definitely better than him – Faster, stronger and smarter – but unaware of life. Instantly smitten, WALL•E tries to get closer to his subject of interest, only to find out that she has been sent by the humans residing in the spaceship Axiom, which had been installed 700 years ago to temporarily hold humans till the ecological problem on earth was solved. EVE is immediately called back to Axiom when she discovers that there is vegetation on earth again, after so many centuries. WALL•E decides to go after her and leaves earth.

WALL•E is introduced to a whole new species called humans. Though comically executed, it is with some solemnity that the humans are handled in the film. WALL•E notices that man has been pampered and made back into infants, refusing to even walk and eat on their own, ignorant of all the small joys of life. This is when its gets a bit dramatic and things seem to become a bit conventional. WALL•E, unintentionally, induces life into everyone there and they start realizing the vitality of life. It seems like the second dawn of man. Man learns to walk, again. He gets independent of all his machines. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. As the ship’s captain decides to return back to earth, he faces stern opposition. Can humanity be brought back to earth? Can man re-learn everything? Can earth feel the Fifth Element once more?

In a film about robots, it is difficult to make the audience empathize with the rigid geometrically built characters. But WALL•E’s large eyes are so full of life that one does not feel that he is a lifeless being right from the first glimpse. One is reminded of Scrat’s eyes from Ice Age (2002), but this is only better. So are EVE’s two dimensional eyes. The creators have generated so much emotion from just changing their shapes. And so has a lot of effort gone into the fabrication of the wasteland. The damp roads, the disposed plastics and the occasional gust of wind – everything here is a lunge forward for CG animation. Pixar regular Tom Newman has done a good job by introducing some 60’s and 70’s feel into the score that is, ironically, very suitable for such a futuristic film.

In A Bug’s Life (1998), there’s this scene where Manny the mantis performs his routine trick called the Chinese Cabinet of Metamorphosis and Molt the bumbling hopper is shocked and cries out “How did he do that!!!”. That is exactly what I ask myself every time Pixar churns out one of their creations. Producing around five minutes of animation every week, Pixar has once again proved all those clichéd maxims about hard work. Here they are now, with WALL•E, clearly another winner. May not be their best, but it does get the credit of being the best film of the year so far.

P.S: Stick till the quirky end credits which roll over as WALL•E and EVE dance over paintings ranging from the early man’s pagan art to Van Gogh.

P.P.S: Check out the Pixar short Presto that comes along with this film. It is up there with the likes of Geri’s Game and For The Birds. Absolutely hilarious.