If Brad Bird has a signature auteur trait it would be that each of his films are struggles with and reactions to modernity. Across his thus far brief, yet rich, three-feature career, Bird has built three distinct modern worlds and populated them with characters seeking to reckon their modern experience through outlandish, cinematic means. In his latest, Ratatouille, the main character is Remy (Patton Oswalt—charms, not whines), a rat in Paris with the sensory palate of an aesthete food lover and the overactive imagination requisite to become the best chef in France. But he’s a rat. Life is tough for a rat. This modern world of Ratatouille wants nothing to do with rats. All they do is muck up the joint.
Throughout the first act, Remy is tossed around and shot across the screen, the world of the film: he is rejected. Yet Remy remains fearless, seeking the life he thinks his should be—breed’s birthright be damned—as a chef like his hero, August Gusteau (Brad Garrett—disappears in his accent). But he’s a rat. Even though Gusteau says, “Anyone can cook,” the world will not have it. Especially if a critic like the dour snob Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole—a god) proclaims Gusteau’s maxim naïve and declares, “No, I don’t think anyone can do it.” What Ego seems to overlook is how Gusteau, and the film, qualify their maxim: “Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.” Which is also to say, anybody can make art (movies, say) but great art (great movies) are only ever instances of the truly imaginative and innovative, the kinds that offer new perspective—on art, on movies, on life. Ratatouille isn’t simply about food, or the broad scope of art, but about our great modern art: the movies.
While the gourmet kitchen is a tidy metaphor for the collaborative food-chain process of filmmaking, it’s Ratatouille’s theatrical puppetry and visualization of the non-visual senses that makes it explicitly about movies. As an animated film is composed of handcrafted images moving at the will of the animator, so too does Remy move his counterpart, the ever-limber Linguini (Lou Romano—goofs well), to create dishes. In gourmet cuisine we know the presentation—that is, the image—of the food is almost as important as its taste and texture. Each dish is literally an image forged, like each shot in a film, like each shot in an animated film is literally imbued with vitality: the visual texture of Bird and Pixar’s animation technique makes objects like rats, humans, onions, sweet breads, and sauces, look pliable and plastic and delectably supple.
Remy is not just a surrogate filmmaker creating great films-as-meals, he’s a distinctive animator. His sense of taste isn’t restricted to his palate: when he tastes something, the world disappears and a discothèque flurry of colors swirls around his head. He also imagines Chef Gusteau floating around his head as his own Jiminy Cricket, a figment of his imagination acting as guide and conscience. As much as they are the film’s flights of imaginative fancy, the dancing colors and the apparition all spur on from Remy’s imagistic mind. Another crucial dash of imagination is how, perched atop Linguini’s head, Remy is able to marionette Linguini’s limbs as would an animator bend characters to his or her will. Form and content reflect one another, in Linguini’s body and in the film. But, of course, Remy is a rat. What sets Remy apart in his quest to live in the modern world as his own, uh, being, is he is not happy to simply take, to collect garbage, as are the other rats: he wants to add something to the world, to create. It takes more than one shift in perspective for this quest to succeed.
While geared towards a specifically adult audience, and employing much more blatant cinematic themes and movements, Satoshi Kon’s newest anime feature, Paprika, is after a similar end to that of Ratatouille. For Kon, the modern world is run rampant with delusions, and the cultural aimlessness has spilled over into dreams, rearranging the borders of reality. In the climax, periphery and center finally collapse into a waking nightmare. Paprika horrifies where Ratatouille delights, but it is equal parts in awe of the world as is its family-friendly cinematic neighbor. The possibilities are endless, it would appear, but all are somehow inhibited by modernity in some fashion.
In Paprika, as in Ratatouille, dreams are wonderful, but dangerous. Yet, while Ratatouille rejoices in cooperation, Paprika fears the perilous fallout from merging, or sharing, dreams. Moreover, it is afraid of a loss of self in such a shared dream as the movies, or the Internet, or the modern world: to lose self in this world is to lose perspective of the world, and one’s relation to it. Paprika’s reaction is to employ both movies and dreams rather explicitly to investigate (1) their independent and collaborative worth; (2) how they work alone and in tandem; (3) what they mean to us, as individuals and as the world; (4) why they are seductive; and (5) when & how to use (and enjoy) them in light of such complications. All of which is to say: how do we return, from such a disassociated and de-centered reality, to the modern world, to life?
To situate such a reaction, the films must situate their particular modern worlds: country rat moving to Paris; woman of science diving into irrational dreams. Here, too, in the film’s world-building, form and content cannot be divorced. However, Ratatouille’s formal choices for building its world are less evident and more classically seamless than those of Paprika, which exists seams exposed, its surreal inconsistencies always apparent. Yet both reactions are rooted in the respective protagonists’ perspectives.
Ratatouille’s world is seen primarily through Remy’s point of view until he meets Linguini, when the point of view shifts often between the two, and eventually merges for their alchemic moments of puppetry-as-cooking. Since the camera is always an artificial perspective in animation (the principal machinery used is imagination, and drawing), Bird’s camera can shrink or balloon to adopt the differing perspectives without fail, appearing seamless because the scale of the world is never in doubt. The film operates seamlessly because all of Remy’s imaginative flights of fancy further the story while simultaneously commenting on image making.
The scenes of Remy imagining the colors of taste establish him as a unique mind since, when he attempts to teach his brother, Emile (Peter Sohn—clowns well), about food, Emile can only get a fraction of the picture. When we see Remy imagining Gusteau, we see Remy as a creative mind, conjuring a companion. He sees no boundaries. Yet Remy knows he’s small—he sees the world as big and the world sees him as small; and Linguini knows the rat is small so he sees the rat in the appropriate scale. Their perspectives are matched by the camera work in their respective registers. What binds them is they are both a little awkward in their respective worlds (which are the same world): rats are routinely shunted, Linguini’s limbs move like his name, like liquid. So it makes sense that their union makes a kind of perfect (seamless) being in this insistent modern world: part human, part rat, all cook. They divorce bodies at the end, however, as each finds his being validated—as rat, as human—in their respective domains.
Paprika’s world is only ever built through proliferating (and sometimes abutting) perspectives across a plenitude of platforms. Here, to reckon oneself is to be divided from the outset. Our eponymous heroine Paprika is the dreamland doppelganger of Dr. Chiba (both Megumi Hayashibara), an identity easily inhabited with the aid of a magical piece of electronics, the DC Mini. The primary point of view is always already dialogic. When the dream world merges with the waking world towards the close of the film, the two identities physically work in tandem: so much so that by the end of the film they are completely divorced, autonomous from—but not forgotten by—one another. The other major seam exposed is the divide between computer animated images and hand-rendered cel animation. Paprika is built chiefly from hand drawings, but at key junctures it augments the images by merging with computer-modeled animations.
Early on, the Chief doctor’s mind is taken over by a rogue member of the DC Mini team (the film says “terrorist”), predicting the formal conflation: “Even the five court ladies danced in sync to the frog’s flutes and drums. The whirlwind of recycled paper was a sight to see. It was computer graphics!” In the following sequence we see a parade led by a refrigerator to a beat drummed by frogs amidst a computer-generated whirlwind of confetti. And that’s just the beginning. The climactic merging of dream and waking worlds is spurred on by a computer-aided vortex that tries its damnedest to swallow the cel animation world. The perspectives are thrown together, and a new kind of composite world is created. Yet, once again, they are divorced in the end, and the hand-drawn waking world, all distinct lines, literally swallows the computer-aided dream world, restoring the domains to their respective relevance, and composite hierarchy: dreams are sub-conscious, kept at bay by the screen of sleep. Paprika lives there, enfolded in the dream world, while Dr. Chiba prospers in the waking world; each rules a part of the whole.
But they cannot completely disconnect: Remy needs Linguini to serve his creations to the world just as Paprika needs Dr. Chiba to exist to spin out dreams and understand them, and each other. The dialectic construction of both films is a means to navigate that return to living in the world.
Ratatouille begins in the country and moves into the city, where food is almost dematerialized, a plastic product (as signified by the cardboard and imaginative Chef Gusteau). Paprika begins in the virtual world of dreams and moves out into the reality of the waking world. Both return to their origins to reckon their present. In Ratatouille’s thoughtful, tender climax, the critic Ego, who up to this point has been an emblem for analytic detachment, is physically thrown back into his past (in the country) when he tastes the eponymous, peasant dish as prepared by Remy (and friends). In Paprika’s almost-terrifying, but still light-hearted climax, Dr. Chiba returns to a place where she is able to dream again, alone, true to herself: she comes to realize pulling her friend Tokita (Tôru Furuya) out of the elevator is pulling him back into her life, and their embrace is the embrace of love. This is only furthered in that the film’s other hero, Detective Kogawa (Akio Ôtsuka), opens the film afraid of movies, but in the closing moments decides to indulge, guilt- and angst-free, in one adult ticket. The movies are scary, but unavoidably awesome. To refuse such an admittance is to refuse the world in these films: perhaps that which we resist most will, in the end, wind up defining our lives in the world all the more. One’s past (one’s inheritance) is unavoidable, but manageable—with skill and a will to risk danger—in the present.
The overriding dialectic at play in my pairing of these films, however, is the kids versus adults axis, epitomized by which sensual engagement each film privileges. Ratatouille serves food while Paprika offers sex. Which, in turn, helps one to sense their generic inheritance: classical Disney/children’s literature and film noir. Divergent as they are, the films (and their respective genres inside the world of animated film) pair perfectly in their engagement with modernity and movies, and how they are inextricably tied together in the image-oriented culture we find ourselves inhabiting today. Here, where boundaries are routinely collapsed and overlapped, the abutting of worlds helps one sense that the possibilities inherent in movies and in life are endless. That seeming boundlessness is what makes the movies, the worlds they imagine, and the world-bound life itself, so exciting.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.