Ratatouille’s Success: A Crossroads for Disney Animation?

2 Jul

Now, those of you who read my blog regularly know that Mr Broke Hoedown’s not a big fan of Disney. But Pixar? Well, that’s a whole other story.

In his blog today, Collateral Damage, Mr Broke Hoedown raves about Ratatouille (warning, spoilers below):

It never takes the obvious route. It is never hack (which is what comedians’ name for the easy and cliche). It isn’t “HEARTWARMING.” Every choice made by the people involved is true to the story and the characters and not just what the audience expects. As a result it gives the audience so much more than mere easy laughs. The big challenge that our hero (voiced by the wonderful Patton Oswalt) overcomes is not will he become a chef, it’s how to make peace between being a rat AND being a chef. When his family comes to his aid it’s not a big sweeping emotional moment, it’s a much more realistic “yeah we’re family and this is what family does even when they’re angry at each other” moment. In other words: It’s a true moment, not a Hollywood one.

One of Ratatouille’s greatest strengths is that it never forgets that rats and people eating food are not something that go together. Even when the rats ride to the rescue and run the kitchen, the movie is smart enough to include a stomach-jarring shot of rodents swarming. If this had been made just by Disney Ratatouille would have had an ending where the restaurant is saved, the rat and the human both get the girl and snoooooore. That sort of happens, but not in the predictable way that ruined so many of Disney’s later animated movies.

Also it’s hard to imagine the later Disney movies including the wonderful scene where our hero and his father walk by the exterminator’s shop in the Marais whose window is decorated with dead rats in traps. (I’ve been by that store a number of times, it is quite wonderful.) Pre-Pixar animation at Disney long ago gave up being willing to actually upset the audience. For all that Lion King was willing to show the father’s death, it did it without the terror and darkness that makes Pinocchio one of the greatest and scariest movies I’ve ever seen.

John Frost of The Disney Blog also found Ratatouille a significant departure from the usual Disney fare, and in a good way:

. . . I had convinced myself that Pixar had strayed too far away from the traditional animated children’s film with Ratatouille. But what is a traditional animated children’s film? That is decided anew with every genre busting film that’s released. All you can do is to find what you love and keep doing it to the best of your ability. That’s the lesson of Ratatouille and the philosophy behind Pixar. That Walt’s Way and it’s a recipe for success for us all.

Earlier in his article, Frost relates this back to earlier days of Disney:

With Ratatouille, animated film, at least the way Brad Bird and Pixar produce it, stands at a cross-roads similar to where Walt Disney stood after Pinocchio and Fantasia. They can go on along the path they’re following and convert the medium into something new that appeals to adults while not being tethered to the ‘family film’ rules. This is the fiscally risky route (see the initial box office results for Fantasia). But the greater the risk, the greater the reward (a theme common to Pixar films, not coincidentally I imagine).

Alternatively, they can return to something more appealing to the kid in all of us (and more entertaining for those who actually are kids). Think Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. When those films were released they were anything but conventional. Indeed Sleeping Beauty stands as a singular masterpiece of art. The irony is that while they’re all commercially less risky, that’s not to say they were all box office successes. Nor is it to say there is a simple formula to follow. It’s harder to swing for the fences when you’re deliberately using a shorter bat as Walt Disney found out during and after WWII. In modern day animation this method isn’t resulting in any box office gold right now either (see recent Dreamworks and WDAS releases).

Let’s hope that the success of Ratatouille emboldens Disney Animation to take more chances, and bust a few more genres themselves.

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