I only care about one Academy Award tonight

The Academy Awards start in a few minutes.  While they can be treated as a political topic in many ways — even without commenting on the labor situation in the arts — that’s not my topic today.

This has been a slow year for prestige moviegoing on my part.  For the first time I can remember — maybe for the first time since I became a teenager — I have seen none of the films nominated for Best Picture.  Of them, I’m most inclined to see “Michael Clayton” to see how well its depiction of New York lawyering matches mine, and I’ll be pleased if it wins.  (I’d also be happy for Clooney to get an Oscar for Best Actor, though I hear that Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock; please don’t let it go to Johnny Depp for a performance that is so inferior to the classic Sweeney Todds of George Hearn and Len Cariou.)  But mostly, I don’t much care who wins.

Nor do I care about the face-off for the Best Documentary prize between No End in Sight and SiCKO; while I’ve only seen the latter, I’ve heard enough about the former to believe that both films deserve wide audiences and I’m not going to choose between the issues of Iraq and Health Care on the basis of importance.  I choose both.  I’ll root for a tie.

No, the award I care about is in a category where the winner is considered to be a foregone conclusion, and I am rooting loudly for the underdog.  I want to publish my thoughts for the record before the award ceremony begins — and the wrong film almost certainly wins.

The category is Best Animated Feature.  And now, for your consideration, a rant.

I’m going ignore Surf’s Up in discussing this competition.  The prohibitive favorite is Brad Bird’s Ratatouille.  The massively better film is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Spoilers below; stop here if you care about that.


What’s best about Ratatouille is the animation itself; it’s the usual technical advance in the craft that we’ve come to expect from Pixar.  It lacks the soul and personal stylistic stamp that is found in Persepolis, but it sure is impressive.  What’s good about Ratatouille is most of the voice acting, although most of the voice actors work in the service of only the broadest stereotypes.  What’s worst — and what makes it amazing that the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well — is the writing.

I’d have to watch Ratatouille again (something I’m not inclined to do) while taking notes to recapture all of what about it struck me as so weak.  Part of it is, once again as with The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s silly, self-pitying, quasi-Objectivist politics.  The Incredibles is premised on a “tort reform” scenario worthy of John Stossel, in which superheroes are driven into hiding due to the high cost of lawsuits.)  By the end, Bird lays down the message that while some of us are Ubermenschen we may just have to hide our lights under a bushel so as not to disturb the less-gifted among us.  Still, at least the movie was well-written and had a point of view.

What is the point of view of Ratatouille?  For the most part, as described below, it’s an incredible muddle.  But one thing does come through: no one appreciates the truly gifted artist, least of all critics, although some artists are such Ubermeschen — or at least Ubervermin — that at the end even their harshest critics must bow to them.  (Remy is doubly unappreciated, in fact: both in the human world of haute cuisine, and back in the rat world, where his incredible sense of smell is wasted on sniffing out poison.  If that is a waste….)  If the whole movie played out that theme, it would at least be, like The Incredibles a clear statement of a position that people could enjoy while watching and argue about later.  But, instead, it’s a hash — and often a rehash as well.

Part of the problem is that so much of it is so hackneyed.  It’s a Cyrano story to some extent, with Remy the Rat controlling the actions (rather than the words) of the more socially acceptable (at least compared to a rat) chef, Alfredo.  (He does this by pulling on Alfredo’s hair like a marionette, leading to some physical comedy that provides the movie’s sole smiles.)  The relationship between Alfredo and Colette (the actual competent chef in the kitchen) begins with an accidental kiss, a bold foray into hackneydom.  Alfredo turns out to be the actual but formerly unknown heir of the recently deceased owner of the restaurant around which most of the action revolves, and the antagonist (the current chef, Skinner), who stands to inherit if he is not discovered, tries to hide this from him.  It is as if someone on the Disney lot brought out that studios Compleat Book of Film Cliches and chose ten or twenty of them by blindly flipping pages and pointing to random entries to generate the script.

But the bigger problem is that it’s simply screwed up.  The previous owner, chef of a major Parisian restaurant, is a televised chef whose motto is — as is true of most of the top French chefs, we can all agree — “anyone can cook.”  Well, OK, maybe — one can accept that that’s the way things go in Bird’s fantasyland.  But then we’re to accept that part of Skinner’s perfidy — because his hating the rat-chef hero and trying to cheat the boy-chef out of his inheritance is not enough — is his plan to market frozen dinners using the restaurant’s name.  So, let me get this straight.  Being a foodie: great!  Being an exclusive Parisian restaurant: good.  Going on TV and demystifying cooking: OK.  Making a semblance of haute cuisine available for people: villainy.  What The (Wolfgang) Puck?  An artist can take an elitist or an anti-elitist stance, or even an intermediate or contingent one, but if one is painting in strokes as broad as lasagna pans shouldn’t the reason one is rooting for heroes and despising villains be clear?

(Well, part of it is clear: Skinner is to be reviled in part because he is short and ugly, in the grand tradition of cartoon villains.  One can argue about the politics of that “lookism” — but in a film where, ostensibly, part of the point is that one shouldn’t judge a rat by his verminhood it poses at least something of a contradiction.)

More fundamentally, the film isn’t clear on the basic question it raises: should we or should we not be grossed out by the idea of a rat (or, at the end, a swarm of rats) preparing restaurant meals?  One would think that a movie about rats cooking meals would take a stand.  Its inability to do so is most clearly evident in its treatment of — where’s that Book of Cliches again? — the health inspector.  In some movies, the health inspector would be the equivalent of the Dogcatcher trying to catch the innocent, free, and heroic cartoon dogs — who we know (even if the youngest viewers don’t) will then ultimately be killed.  That is, he’d be a villain.  But, in this case, he’s not trying to kill any rats, he’s not trying to shoot and cook our heroic rabbit like hungry Elmer Fudd, he’s just trying to shut down a restaurant that has them preparing meals.  This, as it happens, is his job.

So, is he a villain?  The fact that he is kidnapped to keep him from doing so suggests that he must be — otherwise, why do we feel good about it?  But the fact that he is ultimately released and, sure enough, shuts down the restaurant suggests that what he wants to do is not that out of line — otherwise, he’d end up cartoon dead or with an exploding cigar blackening his face or some other fate of the cartoon villain.  So, his closing down the restaurant is OK.  But if it’s OK, what are we to think about a new restaurant being opened up where, fawned over by the harsh critic, the rats go ahead and cook the meals?  Are they just a step ahead of the health inspector?  And again, with respect to this new restaurant, should we be grossed out by the idea of rats preparing restaurant meals?  If so, is this a happy ending?  If not, why is it a just resolution for them to have moved to a new restaurant?

Ah, but it’s more complex, you may say.  Actually, it doesn’t deserve credit for being complicated: it’s just muddled.  Bird does not resolve the contradiction because he wants to have his ratatouille and eat it too; he just decides to ignore the major tension in his movie.  What really matters, in his telling, is that the critic, Ego, is melted by Remy’s virtuosity; ugly, disgusting Remy is finally acknowledged by the critics as a gustatory hero.  This is a satisfying conclusion so long as you avoid thinking about it too deeply.


“Not thinking about it too deeply” is not, by contrast, something that Persepolis demands of the discriminating viewer.  You can, and should, think about it as deeply as you’d like.  This is a lovely story in many ways.  Marjane Satrapi’s artwork — mostly, though not entirely, black and white, with shapes sometimes evoking woodcuts, something Matisse’s cutouts, sometimes lovely graphic art — is as unusual for major animated features as the Pixar production’s is simply the next step in a well-trod path.  If the world hadn’t already seen seven previous Pixar films, Ratatouille would be such an absolute visual revelation that the story wouldn’t matter.  But it plows over old ground, whereas Satrapi gives us something personal and new.

The autobiographical story is many things: a young girl’s bildungsroman; a history of 20th century Iran; a story of immigrant life in Europe; a meditation on government, personal ethics, family, ideology, poverty, war, religion, repression and torture.

Here, I want to encourage you to heed the spoiler warning.  If you haven’t seen Persepolis (or read Satrapi’s graphic novel, from which it is adapted) — do.  This essay can wait — it will still be here in the future.

Marjane, the protagonist, is a flawed heroine in ways as interesting as the ways that Remy is banal.  At various moments, she is violent, egotistical, depressed, duped, and at one horrifying moment even consigns an innocent man to torture.  But it is a supremely moral story as well, and one that even young children could understand and appreciate.  (Well, there is sex and violence — but they could still understand it.)

Satrapi brilliantly shows how the British installed the original Shah in exchange for access to oil, and how resistance to his (and his son’s) government was squashed until it finally exploded into violent revolution.  She shows how the left competed with, and was ultimately duped by, the religious extremists whom at one point she notes were repressive to a greater degree.  She despairs of the West’s willingness and even ability to understand Iran, and refugees from its tragedies.  And she gives us a roster of vivid characters, both admirable and not, who wrestle with the ethics of how to survive in such a country.  As if this weren’t enough, the coming of age story is tart even when it is not enmeshed with the politics.

Brad Bird likes to argue that cinematic cartoons are not just for kids — but that is a lesson that viewers have understood ever since the wisecracking Brooklyn rabbit Bugs Bunny first ran wild over the screen.  Ratatouille, no matter how artistic it is, is a kid’s movie in that it doesn’t challenge the viewer to grapple with the world in any way beyond simply enjoying its juvenile gross-out premise.  It’s as if Sweeney Todd, that terrifying morality play, were simply about throat-slitting rather than about injustice.

Persepolis, by contrast, challenges, entertains, amuses, distresses, and teaches.  It’s not a kid’s movie, though it’s the rare kid of sufficient emotional maturity who wouldn’t benefit from seeing it.  In a just world, it would win the Academy Award tonight.  We don’t live in that world, I’m afraid, but — like the inner life of a young Iranian girl born circa 1971 — it is a nice world to imagine.


  1. If you’re wondering why I am posting an essay about the Oscars, let alone devoting this much energy and time to writing about two animated movies, I live in Greater Los Angeles!  Taking movies waaaay too seriously whenever I want to is my due right as a resident.

    And for all of you who love Ratatouille — as 96% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes inexplicably did — en garde!  It was a piece of merde!

    (But really: see Persepolis when you can.  You’ll thank me for pushing you.)

    • kredwyn on February 25, 2008 at 02:33

    I watched Surf’s Up with my niece over Thanksgiving. And I quite liked it for what it was…surfer penguins.

    I’ll see if the housemate can get the others through Netflix.

  2. Ratatouille.


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