Pixar Perfectionists Cook `Ratatouille'
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 3:42 PM
LOS ANGELES -- Pixar Animation will serve no rodent before its time.
The outfit behind such animated smashes as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" has a simple secret: The company takes its time and lets a story mature to its finest.
That includes the new "Ratatouille," the tale of a rat that gets an unlikely chance to do what he loves most _ cook in a French restaurant in Paris.
Unlike "Shrek the Third," the animated sequel that grabbed big audiences but was dismissed by critics as a tired afterthought, or "Surf's Up," which earned good reviews but could not pull in the crowds, "Ratatouille" is drawing critical raves and has all the ingredients to maintain Pixar's perfect track record _ seven previous movies, seven hits.
Opening Friday, "Ratatouille" is a rarity in this summer of sequels: An original story with newly created characters that is not based on a comic book, a TV show, a children's story or anything else that came before.
"I joke about summer sequels and how we made this as the prequel to the sequel," said "Ratatouille" writer-director Brad Bird, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind "The Incredibles."
"Ideally, we'll stand out in the crowd of sequels. All this time we pour in getting the story right is something that is a luxury for a producer," said "Ratatouille" producer Brad Lewis, who came to Pixar after working on such films as "Antz." "There's a commitment from the top on down. `You guys do what it takes to make the story work.' In some films, you don't have that time to actually craft and craft and craft the story."
"Ratatouille" presents the adorable Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a rodent possessing keen senses of taste and smell compared to his rat brethren, who are content to eat any old garbage.
Remy dreams of following in the footsteps of his deceased hero, human chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). Circumstance lands Remy at Gusteau's restaurant, where the spirit of the chef guides him through a bizarre partnership with clumsy clean-up boy Linguini (Lou Romano), who becomes the rat's accomplice in cooking up delectable dishes.
The voice cast includes Janeane Garofalo as the kitchen's only female cook, Ian Holm as a devious chef, and Peter O'Toole as a Scrooge-like food critic.
John Lasseter, an executive producer on "Ratatouille" and Pixar's creative mastermind whose "Toy Story" started the era of computer-animated feature films, said the new movie follows the same guidelines as the company's previous hits, which include "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc." and "Cars."
The storytellers at Pixar describe themselves as big kids who want to make the sort of films they like to watch _ tales that work for all audiences, parents with small children, teenagers and adults without kids.
Pixar relies on the playbook established by Lasseter's idol, Walt Disney, whose pioneering animation balanced laughs, thrills, chills and characters that audiences embraced as companions.
"We always believe in what Walt Disney said, for every laughter, there should be a tear. We work really hard to find that emotion and pathos," Lasseter said. "By the end, the characters, we know them so well, they're like friends for us. Like fellow Pixarians. They're so real to us, partly because they are us."
Pixar now is bringing Uncle Walt's storytelling philosophy home to roost at the Walt Disney Co., whose animation efforts had floundered in recent years under former boss Michael Eisner.
Tensions between Eisner and Pixar management had threatened to end Disney's distribution deal for Pixar films. Instead, after Bob Iger took over at Disney when Eisner stepped down, the two outfits patched things up, and Disney bought Pixar.
Lasseter and Pixar colleague Ed Catmull now oversee animation at both companies, aiming to change Disney's executive-driven, profit-is-king approach to cartoon creation to one in which storytellers are free to craft the best films they can.
The approach has paid off at Pixar, where huge audiences inevitably followed because the movies were simply so good.
"It's like the old Disney company," said voice star Oswalt, a lifelong animation devotee. "They would say, `We don't make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.' That's the attitude at Pixar.
"All these other animation groups want to be like Pixar, but they steal the wrong things from them. They don't steal the actual process, which is take your time, hold out for the good stuff, which is kind of what `Ratatouille' is all about.' Don't just stuff yourself with bland garbage. Wait for the good stuff."
Like George Lucas' Lucasfilm, where Pixar began as a visual-effects unit before Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs bought it in the mid-1980s, the company is based in Northern California.
Geography helps keep it isolated from the whims of Hollywood, where studio executives are notorious for interfering to the point where many movies turn to mush.
"They don't suffer from too-many-cooks syndrome. They don't suffer from, `We have to please everybody,' which ends up pleasing nobody. They make movies they would like to see, and it works out," said co-star Garofalo, who described Pixar's workplace as a playground for creative adults.
"It's like the Harvard of animation. Everybody wants to get in, but there's only a finite amount of spaces. The environment is so exciting, you want to make sure you don't get booted, so you perform. If you get hired by Pixar, you bust your (butt), because you know you're never going to work at a place like that again."
Still, Pixar is a business, and management will step in if the business of telling the best possible story is off-track.
"Ratatouille" was conceived by Pixar animator Jan Pinkava, who was supposed to make his feature directing debut with the film. After a couple of years of work, the story had not developed to the liking of Pixar's top brass.
Once Bird finished "The Incredibles," he began helping out on "Ratatouille," and Pixar overseers eventually decided to put him in charge.
Bird rewrote the script and replaced Pinkava as director. Pinkava, who later left Pixar, ended up with story and co-director credits on "Ratatouille."
"Jan came up with a brilliant idea and was very excited about it, but in the end, it didn't have the leadership to take it kind of through," Lasseter said. "The last thing we want to do is replace the director, but to help make the movie better, if we have to, we will."
Pixar imitators tend toward the easy route, loading animated flicks up with cuddly critters, blabbering sidekicks and catchy pop tunes. Taking risks by telling new stories with fresh characters is a key to Pixar's success, Bird said.
"One of my all-time heroes is the Beatles," Bird said. "They had enormous success and every incentive in the world to do the same thing, and their sound never stayed in the same place. They took it as an opportunity to take the audience on a journey with them, trying new things and going in new directions.
"Is there a way you can do this in a more entertaining fashion? Is there a way to get the audience to think you're going to go left, then suddenly you go right? That's what makes you excited to get up in the morning."