On Tuesday, Pixar's rats-in-the-kitchen flick Ratatouille debuted on DVD and Blu-ray. How fitting that its release coincides with that of the Pixar Short Films Collection, 13 animated shorts that chronicle how far Pixar and computer animation have come in the last 20-plus years. While there's no doubt Parisian cityscapes and intricately designed French gourmet kitchens are a visual quantum leap from anthropomorphic desk lamps and beach balls, Pixar would be well served to revisit the basic story telling of its short films to rediscover the warmth and sense of fun that is sadly lacking in its most recent feature.
Lights, camera, beach ball! The deceptively simple "Luxo Jr."
Pixar: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been
To watch the 13 films of the Pixar Short Films Collection in order is to bear witness to the evolution of computer animation as it moved from the digitized realm of hardcore computer geeks to the creative world of artists and storytellers. It begins with "The Adventures of Andre and Wally B.," a mid-1980s exercise in graphics and motion John Lasseter animated at Lucasfilm. In 1986, Steve Jobs purchased the computer graphics division at Lucasfilm to form Pixar, which some will remember as a computer hardware and software company—filmmaking was but a tiny portion of the company’s business, and an experimental one at that. Here Lasseter and other founding employees including Ed Catmull, Eben Ostby and Bill Reeves would lay the foundation for a new kind of animation entertainment. More short films would follow; each one building on its predecessor with more realistically rendered images, shapes, shadows and textures. The one constant was the humor, warmth and pathos derived from these simple stories.
The early films in the Pixar Short Films Collection include "Luxo Jr." and the bouncing desk lamps that would eventually symbolize Pixar. There’s "Red’s Dream," with its film noirish bicycle shop; the Oscar-winning "Tin Toy" with its drooling monster baby and two classic punch lines; and, finally, the just-for-fun "Knick Knack" and its love struck snowman. These were the proving grounds—the baby steps that would eventually lead to the first fully computer animated feature film, Toy Story, released in 1995. And they’re all classics.
Not sheepish at all. The delightful "Boundin.'"
Pixar was now a full-fledged animation studio. With their focus shifted to features, less emphasis was placed on the shorts, but they still served a vital role in developing young talent at the studio—much like short cartoons did at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1940s and 50s. 1997 saw the release of the Oscar-winning "Geri’s Game" with its schizophrenic chess match. Other gems include "For the Birds" (another Oscar winner) and the sublime "Boundin’," Bud Luckey’s homespun tale of a sheared sheep who learns a life lesson from a wise jackalope. Its non-stop motion and Seussian rhymes are an absolute joy. It’s the crown jewel of a sparkling short film collection.
You’re a Rat, for Pete’s Sake
Which brings us to Pixar’s latest offering, Ratatouille. Count me among the apparent few (Disney touts Ratatouille as the “best reviewed film of the year”—so says RottenTomatoes.com) who weren’t charmed by this French kitchen caper. Like Cars before it, Ratatouille has a story that can’t quite figure out what to be (buddy film? fish out of water comedy? sly romance?) and characters that I never felt any emotional connection to. The animation is exquisite, but it’s all window dressing for a movie with little warmth or heart.
Linguini a'la Rat
Ratatouille tells the tale of Remy (Patton Oswalt), a gastronomically gifted rat who longs to rise above his squalorly existence to become a chef like his idol Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett). After a harrowing escape from the country, Remy finds himself an unwelcome guest in the kitchen of Gusteau’s once grand Paris restaurant, now a haven for tourists more than haute cuisine. He befriends awkward schlub Linguini (Lou Romano), the restaurant garbage boy, who recognizes Remy’s culinary talent (and his ability to understand humans) and saves him from a violent demise. They eventually forge a relationship whereby Remy becomes Linguini’s rodent puppet master, transforming him bit by bit into Paris’s top chef, much to the chagrin of Linguini’s boss, the rat-obsessed Skinner (Ian Holm).
The story misfires repeatedly, introducing a romance between Linguini and kitchen mate Colette (Janeane Garafalo) that never gels and building to an anticlimactic showdown between Remy/Linguini and dour food critic Anton Ego (a gloriously funereal Peter O’Toole). When the worst thing your heroes have to fear is a bad restaurant review, it’s hard to generate any real sympathy or emotion for them, no matter how many ratty hijinks you bring to the kitchen.
This is my town baby! Newark?
And finally, why, why, why does a film that oozes authenticity and detail in every French cooking creation and Paris city skyline boast so many characters that sound like they just flew in from Jersey? Linguini might just as well have been named Soprano.
No one does computer animation like Pixar. They set the gold standard over 20 years ago and continually top themselves visually, but after Cars and Ratatouille, you’ve got to wonder what’s happening to their storytelling skills.
John Lasseter once made me care about a Luxo lamp and a clearance unicycle. Why can’t today’s Pixar get to the heart of a rat and a race car?
Wall-E, are you listening?