Brad Bird, Faux-Populist

Brad Bird, Faux-Populist

Let me preface this by saying that I really like the films of Brad Bird, whatever the reservations I'm about to voice. The Iron Giant is a heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on how children learn about heroism, even if the movie's "army = bad" sub-message is a little pat. The Incredibles is a stunning paean to retro style and the power of non-conformity, even if its corollary slaps at non-special folks come off a little mean-spirited. (Some would go so far as to call the movie fascist; and some think the whole debate over The Incredibles is nuts. I'm sympathetic to all sides, but I like the movie for what it most definitely is–a rousing, well-constructed adventure–as opposed to what it may or may not be saying.)

As for Ratatouille, I think it's Bird's best yet. It's thoughtful, surprising, lovingly designed and deeply felt. It has a mood unlike almost any other animated feature I've seen. Even its most controversial character–the snooty critic "Anton Ego," voiced by Peter O'Toole–didn't rile me, because frankly, some critics are like that character, ready to meet expressions of enthusiasm with what Ego calls a heaping plate of "perspective." And though I take what I do seriously and think criticism is a valuable artform, I'm not delusional. I know Wild Hogs made more people happy than all the negative reviews of Wild Hogs did. (I also know those negative reviews made some people happy …let us not forget that either.)

Really, my only significant quibble with Ratatouille is that I don't think Bird really believes in the movie's most prevalent theme: "Anyone Can Cook." A cynical person might even say that Bird waves that theme around to quiet some of the outcry about The Incredibles, and to distract from the fact that Ratatouille says, essentially, the opposite.

(Note: Some SPOILERS for Ratatouille follow.)

At the end of the film, Ego confesses that he'd always been turned off by the idea that "Anyone Can Cook," the motto of the film's ghostly conscience, Chef Auguste Gusteau. But after meeting Remy, the rat with the phenomenal palate, Ego realizes that the real meaning of "Anyone Can Cook" is not that that we all have the potential within us to do something awesome, but that awesome talents can emerge from low places. However, they still have to be born awesome. It's The Incredibles theme all over again: Some people are special, and everyone else should deal with the fact that they never will be. And Ratatouille's plot plays that out. After making Remy's recipe for sweetbreads every night for months, Linguini should be able to at least fake his way through prep, but because he's "not a chef" in Ratatouille's universe, he doesn't even try. And despite giving Linguini's love interest Colette a big speech about how hard it is to be a woman in the kitchen, Bird ultimately presents her as little more than a recipe-follower, whose ideas for improving one of Remy's dishes don't impress the exacting little rat. The movie may insist that "Anyone Can Cook," but as far as Bird is concerned, only one person really can. And that person isn't even a person.

(End SPOILERS.)

In essence, I get Bird's point. Some people do have natural gifts that set them apart from their peers, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. But some people work their tails off and overcome their limitations–a thought Bird seems to actively disdain, at least judging by his films. I have a feeling that aside from our mutual love of the same illustrators, Bird and I probably wouldn't have much in common if we ever met.

But in a way, Bird's prickly philosophy is part of what makes his work so distinctive. Pixar's other creative forces–John Lasseter, etc.–have strong sensibilities too, though they're mainly preoccupied with the limitations of nostalgia and the bonds of family. There aren't that many filmmakers–let along those working primarily in animation–willing to advance a worldview that doesn't make people feel all gooey inside. (Tellingly, plenty of cartoonists are just that singularly sour, bordering on misanthropic. Bird seems to have more in common with iconoclasts like R. Crumb and Steve Ditko than with gushy Disney humanism.)

Personally, I like the fact that a filmmaker as distinctive as Bird is making movies that I can't entirely swallow. I'm going to develop this thought further in a future post, but for me, the mark of art is how much it expresses who the artist is. It's nice–and can be necessarily reassuring–to go to the movies, read books, or listen to music and have our opinions reaffirmed. But there's also a lot to be said for listening openly to a disagreeable message–especially when it's delivered with the class and wit of Ratatouille.

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