Props to Pixar

Today, crappy computer animated kids films are popping up faster than mp3 blogs. Finding Nemo devotee Kevin Nguyen examines the success behind Pixar, the only studio bucking the trend.

There’s really no point in reviewing Ratatouille. You already know that, like every previous Pixar production, it’s fantastic.

CGI animation has become a surefire moneymaking trend. According to Boxofficemojo.com, the average gross for a computer animated film is over $130 million. Shrek 2 tops that list with $441 million.

Still, few studios understand the power of the medium. To Dreamworks, Fox, Warner Brothers, and every other studio hopping on the bandwagon, CGI is a gimmick, a guarantee that even the most mediocre flicks will bring in hordes of obese kindergarteners (Madagascar, Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Happy Feet come to mind). More proof of the gimmick is seen in films enlisting movie stars based on popularity rather than vocal strength.

Ratatouille

Ratatouille

On the other hand, Pixar realizes the potential of the form. The quality of their animation consistently embarrasses the competition. Pixar has an eye for scale, and in many of their films, the strength of the directing comes from the perspective of its characters. Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo all focus on characters of miniscule proportions, lost in a world of epic grandeur. This is one of the advantages CGI has over traditional animation, allowing us a fresh visual approach that could not otherwise be afforded to us by “flat” movies. While subtle, nuanced animation wouldn’t improve something like Surf’s Up (it’s about penguins ON SURFBOARDS), Finding Nemo’s visuals are essential to its storytelling. As Pixar’s latest entry, Ratatouille inherits these same values. You’ll understand when you see the film’s protagonist, a fine cuisine-loving rat named Remy, scampering around the kitchen of a French restaurant.

But even above the visuals, the real heart of Pixar’s films is the top-notch writing. Kids movies are deceptively tricky to do well. Unlike many other genres, it must appeal to two audiences: the younger crowd and the parents who took them to the theater. Beyond its exterior, The Incredibles is a complex film. Lines are drawn between the structure of family life, maturation, identity, and the end of the Comic Book Era. At times, I was even reminded of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. You almost forget that The Incredibles, a smart, literary film, is about an over-the-top family of superheroes.

Pixar’s record isn’t flawless though. Let’s not forget A Bug’s Life, which was lukewarm despite its source material being Seven Samurai. Last summer’s Cars was a decent film but disappointing by Pixar standards. As opposed to the more mature overtones of The Incredibles, Cars felt dumbed-down for a younger audience. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice or just the work of a less gifted screenwriter (John Lasseter as opposed to Brad Bird).

The Incredibles

The Incredibles

Still, Ratatouille is evidence the studio is back on track. It’s one of Pixar’s best, up there with The Incredibles, and perhaps even better. The Incredibles became, at points, almost too adult for its younger viewers (marital troubles? fear of infidelity?). Ratatouille, a much simpler film at heart, strikes an almost perfect balance. Almost all of the film is enjoyable.

I guess I’ll give it a little time before I make up my mind on which is the better film. Of course, continuing at this trajectory, whatever Pixar decides to put out next will probably be in the running as well.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.