Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ratatouille, a complaint

Not ready to review Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but I have a few thoughts about the other movie we saw at the drive-in this trip, Ratatouille, which gave me only one moment of pure joy. There were lots of laughs, easy laughs, I thought, but I didn't love anything I saw on the screen until the final credits began to roll and with them some real cartoons started to appear.

By real cartoons I mean pictures that are drawn by a human hand holding a pen or a pencil or a brush or a piece of chalk or a stick moving in the dirt.

I've always been more impressed by computer animation than taken with it.

The animation in Ratatouille is fine enough, better than Pixar's work in Cars and Finding Nemo. Actually, in style and zip and in approach to characterization through drawing, Ratatouille has more in common with the best of the classic Looney Toons than it has with Toy Story or A Bug's Life.

Monsters Inc is still my favorite Pixar production, closely followed by The Incredibles, both of which also come closer in spirit and effect to the Warner Brothers' hand-drawn work. But it's their stories and their voice work and their jokes that carry the day for me.

I had a problem going into Ratatouille that was going to make it hard for me to enjoy it. The movie spends a lot of time on two things I find very unappealing. Rodents and food.

I'm not sure which put me off more, the rats or the detailed attention to the preparation and cooking of food. I can enjoy a good meal, as long as I am not involved in the actual cooking. Ratatouille took away my appetite for a week.

But when those cartoons appeared at the end I had to ask myself if it wasn't the food or the rats but the computer animation itself that had gotten in the way of my enjoying the movie more.

For a moment or two I was telling myself that I would have liked it more if instead of looking like a hand-drawn cartoon, Ratatouille had truly been hand-drawn.

Seems to me that over the last decade computer animation has been improving in technical achievement while stagnating where it counts most in making movies, telling stories through images. The better the images look on the screen the less interesting they are to look at.

By that reasoning, though, I should love the Shrek movies because they look to me like they were painted with canned peas mashed up and turned to paste.

Almost as soon as I decided I'd have liked Ratatouille better if it had been a "real" cartoon, I was asking myself, Oh yeah, Lance? What cartoon have you ever liked because of the way it was drawn?

Certainly not the so-called classic Disney cartoons of the thirties, forties, and fifties. Even when I was a kid I disliked those. They were so pretty and so tame and so safe as ads for soap. I thought something interesting was happening at Disney during the decade between the release of The Little Mermaid and Tarzan. It wasn't a revival, it was a complete reinvention, as if the animators had said, What would Walt have done and whatever that was let's do the opposite. There was sentimentality, there was schmaltz, there were too many songs by Elton John, but there was verve and there was a sense that the drawings had something to do with the telling of the story---that the way a character was drawn, how action unfolded in drawing after drawing could and should have a roughness in order to call attention to the fact that a cartoon is different from a live-action movie and there's a reason for telling this story through drawings rather than through photographs.

But Disney lost interest in cartoons as soon as they realized they could make more money letting Pixar do all the work and distributing their movies.

But going back over the cartoons they made from the late 80's through the late 90s, I can think of only one I liked for its drawing. Mulan.

And having reached this conclusion, I am now wondering something else. Do I even like cartoons at all?

Those great Warner Brothers cartoons were brilliant essays in economy of line. The animators did more by freezing a moment and having Bugs or Wile E. Coyote hold an expression for a count of five than Disney often did with a hundred beautifully rendered cells.

But I like Bugs Bunny cartoons for Bugs, not for the way Bugs is drawn.

I'm not familiar enough with European and Japanese animation. But right now I can't think of a single cartoon, hand-drawn or computer animated, that I truly like for its look as opposed to its voice work and script.

What about you? What's your favorite animated movie?

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