An Animated Dissection: Does Ratatouille contain metaphors for The Walt Disney Company?
As the mid 2000’s began to roll around, a pall of uncertainty hung over fans of Pixar Animation Studios. With the company getting ready to release Cars, there was a tug-of-war going on between the studio and The Walt Disney Company, with neither side willing to budge.
At stake were millions of dollars that Disney wanted to cash in on asap. At the time, they had quickly assembled a group called Circle 7 Animation, which were tasked with churning out sequels to Pixar films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, & Monsters, Inc. The writing was on the wall:
“Even though you made those films, we own the characters. You can cry all you want, but we’re gonna make as many sequels as we want, with or without you!”
Luckily, Michael Eisner was ousted as Disney’s CEO, and Bob Iger came onboard. Iger became the peacemaker that was sorely needed, even if his methods were seen as shocking when the deal for Pixar amounted to a $7.4 billion acquisition. But along with keeping one of the world’s most successful studios within the folds of Disney, several of Pixar’s top players came onboard to help Disney as well.
Steve Jobs became one of the biggest shareholders on the company’s board, while Ed Catmull & former Disney animator John Lasseter would oversee the then-floundering feature animation division. John would also come on board to help revive the company’s theme park division (including major input into the just-completed $1.1 billion revamp/expansion of Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, CA).
But, I’ve gone off the track and jumped to today. Let’s backtrack to that uncertain period of time. As the Disney/Pixar deal was set to expire, one film remained in limbo regarding what would become of it: Ratatouille.
Originally conceived by Jan Pinkava (director of the award-winning Pixar short, Geri’s Game), the story was revamped by Brad Bird, but held onto the concept of a rat with exquisite culinary tastes, who wants to achieve the impossible: becoming a chef.
At the time, the concept being pitched for the film seemed as head-scratching to alot of people, as John Lasseter’s want of a film about talking cars. Ratatouille was a film that was probably one of the toughest for the studio to market. Probably not since The Incredibles had a Pixar film been released with such a low volume of merchandise (of which the majority was only available at The Disney Store). Even so, it became a surprise (if modest) hit in the United States, and netted Pixar its third Best Animated Feature statuette the following spring at The Academy Awards.
After watching the film a few times, I couldn’t help but wonder about some of its content. The film was being made during a turbulent time between Disney and Pixar, and several points of the film seemed to reflect a bit on both of the studios. I have never really heard anyone do a comparison, so I decided to sit down and write this.
1) Gusteau and his restaurant = Walt Disney, and The Walt Disney Company
The film’s famous chef Auguste Gusteau is considered to be one of the world’s premier chefs, whose creativity and skills are loved by almost everyone the world over. Gusteau seemed to encourage others to go out and achieve greatness themselves, and just by what they talk about regarding him, he did not shy away from trying things that may or may not work (we hear of such a thing in the film, when Skinner tasks Linguini to prepare the dish ‘Sweet Bread ala Gusteau,’ a recipe that was considered ‘a disaster’).
This was the mantra that Walt Disney worked with through much of his life. He wanted to do things that noone else had considered or achieved. Some of his ideas achieved great success (the creation of Mickey Mouse, and the film Snow White), and others did not fare so well (such as his attempts to elevate the art form of animation with Fantasia in 1940).
2) Remy and his adoration of Gusteau = Pixar Animation Studios
Remy subscribes greatly to Gusteau’s recipes, and at the beginning, we also see him watching some culinary programs, in which Gusteau gives his opinion on food preparation. Here’s one of the quotes:
“You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true – anyone can cook… but only the fearless can be great.”
This could be seen as metaphorical to how many animators/artisans admired Walt Disney and his studio guys for achieving what many people said were stupid ideas (such as adding sound to film, adding color, and making a full-length ‘cartoon’ film for example).
While Pixar would hold true to their love of Disney, they would also try to break new ground by doing things differently. When they were given the green light to create their own feature-length film, they wanted to go their own way. They didn’t want to ‘copy’ Disney and make a musical or a fairy tale story, or adapt a story into a feature (all of which were popularly being ‘copied’ by Disney’s competitors at the time). Instead, the guys created an original story of their own, and in their daring to be different (but still adhere to the principles of Disney storytelling and animation), crafted something that surprised almost everybody!
Remy’s preparations in the kitchen that lead to new and exciting dishes could definitely be seen as comparable to what many were saying when Pixar’s films surprised many.
3) Do Something Unexpected vs Follow The Recipes
Collette is given the task of showing Linguini what to do around the kitchen at Gusteau’s. During a portion of their tasks, she tells him how in studying Gusteau’s recipes, she noticed he often did unexpected things. This causes Linguini to begin writing down to “Always do something unexpected,” but is quickly reprimanded by Collette.
“It was his job to be unexpected,” she says. “It is our job, to follow the recipes.”
This scene almost seems to speak of the stagnation of The Walt Disney Company in the wake of Walt’s death. During his lifetime, almost all major decisions were largely decided upon by Walt, and he was often known for wanting to do the unexpected. But once he was gone, the company entered into a period where the company struggled to just stay afloat. The 1970’s brought very little change or innovation. And even those who attempted to do something unexpected were often discounted, or met with disdain.
The animation department continued to “follow the recipes.” There was very little that innovated. The stories often seemed ‘safe’ enough, but none really seemed to jump out and take hold of people.
Of course, doing something unexpected will not guarantee one success. Walt’s grand experiment with music and animation, Fantasia, failed to find favor with audiences in 1940. The same could almost be said in 1984, when the company made an unexpected turn in storytelling, and made The Black Cauldron. However, this attempt to do something unexpected, didn’t yield results, and became a costly quagmire that almost sunk the studio’s animation division.
4) Skinner and commercialism = The Walt Disney Studios
Once Gusteau died, the business was turned over to his souse chef, Skinner.
It seems that Skinner just did not have (or did not want) to explore new territory regarding food. Instead, the restaurant chose to serve the same dishes that had been thought up and prepared by Gusteau, and Skinner chose to capitalize off of Gusteau’s image and name as well. The name was famous enough to stand for ‘quality,’ but many were forced to watch as it was used to hawk everything from microwave burritos to ‘chopsocky pockets.’
The fact that Gusteau’s ‘stalled’ with the death of its namesake, is almost reminiscent of what became of the Walt Disney Company when Walt passed away. You were stuck with a crew of people, and the guy who called the shots was now gone. There was very little direction being given, and the 1970’s and early 1980’s became ‘the dark times’ for the studio. Almost none of their live-action efforts succeeded in being as magical as films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Mary Poppins. Plus, the animation division at Disney kept getting hacked to ribbons until it soon numbered under 100 people. There were those who yearned to do what had once made the studio great, but at that time, it looked like the time for reawakening was gone for good.
The merchandising of the studio’s properties really began to kick into overdrive with the studio’s second animation renaissance in the 1990’s, and has been on a meteoric rise ever since, with one example being the billion-dollar Princess line. Many have incited Disney for seeming to slap their name and their familiar characters on everything, from apple slices to credit cards.
Of course, not all products are great. The name can often be slapped on things that seem very uncharacteristic to how people see the company, and over the years, many have been upset at the tarnishing of the brand name used for quick profit. For myself, the Disney name slapped on direct-to-video sequels like Cinderella II (a title that makes me shudder even now) definitely had an impact on how I perceived their operations at the time.
5) Restoring the luster to tarnished names and reputations
Once it is found out that Linguini is Gusteau’s heir, the company’s holdings are turned over to him. One of the biggest changes he makes, is the cancellation of the frozen foods line that Skinner had been working on.
This feels very similar to what happened at the Walt Disney Studios after the Pixar acquisition. Though there wasn’t an outright stop to the merchandising machine (you can’t just derail something that nets that much money to a company like that), there was an attempt to stop what was being largely seen as ruining the studios reputation. Such changes included:
1) The dismantling of Circle 7 Animation, allowing that the creation of any sequels/prequels to Pixar films, were to be created and decided upon by Pixar themselves.
2) The dismantling of the direct-to-video sequel productions that had been such a big money maker for over a decade.
While executives at Disney may have cried foul that profits were being sacrificed, the new management painted a different picture for them: a return to quality, which was eagerly welcomed by many (including several of the company’s shareholders).
6) Anton Ego = Steve Jobs
This is one of those comparisons that could be stretching things, but just remember, this article is largely my mind making comparisons.
While Steve Jobs doesn’t quite have the reputation of Anton Ego (nicknamed ‘The Grim Eater’), both are men who are very picky when it comes to quality and presentation. Both men will settle for nothing less than perfection.
7) La Ratatouille = PIXAR Animation Studios
At the end of the film, Gusteau’s is shut down once Skinner and a health inspector report that there were rats in the restaurant’s kitchen. However, where one door closes, another opens. Anton Ego ends up becoming a business partner when Linguini and Collette choose to open a small bistro, named La Ratatouille. Here, Remy can continue to cook and create new dishes, satisfying his needs, and carrying on the traditions of Auguste Gusteau.
One could almost fold the Anton Ego/Steve Jobs comparison into this one. Both men were sold off on a concept, and put down money to invest in a business.
In the case of Steve Jobs, this came about when in the early 1980’s, Pixar was a company division that was being considered for shutdown by their owner: Lucasfilm, LTD. Several of the people in the division felt there was potential to keep Pixar alive, and eventually got the attention of Steve Jobs. Jobs bought into their spirit, along with the dream that one day, Pixar could achieve the impossible, of creating the world’s first computer-animated feature film. The gamble paid off when almost a decade later, Toy Story was released into theaters.
Pixar was considered by some to be ‘out-Disneying’ Disney, given that they were creating heartfelt, emotional films that were enchanting audiences, and raking in more money than Disney’s animation output.
Along with the comparisons above, there were a few that I felt could be even mover overreaching. I’m including them down here as honorable mentions:
Honorable Mention 1 : Remy = Brad Bird
In the colony where he is part of, Remy is often the odd rat out. He often doesn’t see eye-to-eye on a number of things, and is often at odds with his father, Django.
One thing they disagree on is food. Remy only wants to partake of ‘the good stuff,’ but to Django, there’s very little choice in being picky.
Later on, when the family is reunited in Paris, Django grows concerned that Remy is interacting with humans, and shows him a window filled with dead rats, rat traps, and poisons. Django claims that certain rules and ways are set, and that they can’t expect change, but Remy refuses, and claims that change can be accomplished, willing to continue to put himself on the line to do something different.
Throughout much of his career, Brad Bird has been a guy who has wanted to often achieve and do things differently. In the mid-1980’s, he wanted to do an animated feature based on Will Eisner’s comic, The Spirit. Unfortunately, that project never got off the ground. Even so, Brad continued to push the envelope whenever he could:
– he served as a creative consultant on The Simpsons
– he created one of the best non-Disney/non-Pixar films in 1999, with The Iron Giant, a film that became a classic shortly after it tanked at the box-office.
It was Bird’s vision of an animated film about a family of superheroes that intrigued his school chum, John Lasseter, and John soon invited Brad and some of his cohorts on Iron Giant up to Pt Richmond, CA (where Pixar’s was first located outside of Lucasfilm) to develop their vision.
However, being part of Pixar didn’t give Brad a free ride to do anything he wanted. At the first pitch of the idea to Disney, one executive said, “Ok Brad, there are some things you can, and can’t do in animation.” He then proceeded to rattle off a list of things, and supposedly, Brad did the best he could to control himself (note: information of this can be found on a retrospect on the Blu-Ray disc of The Incredibles). To counter this, John Lasseter explained that they were just going to ‘explore’ Brad’s concept, and soon, that ‘exploration’ turned into one of the studio’s most loved films.
Of course, Brad still continues to try and shake things up. Just take 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In this film, Brad chose to not give us a generic Tom Cruise film, but shook things up in numerous ways. The IMF team are forced to go rogue, and almost none of their fancy gadgets seem to work. So what is there to rely on? Each other. Brad’s turn of making the film more about the people and less about the spectacle, almost seemed to hint at Pixar‘s own philosophy, that it’s the people working on their films that make all the difference.
Honorable Mention 2 : Anyone Can Cook = The Illusion of Life
Aside from seeing some culinary shows talking about Auguste Gusteau, much of what Remy learns comes from Gusteau’s book, Anyone Can Cook. It’s filled with recipes, and a number of things relating to the chef and his restaurant.
In some ways, this reminded me of the book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, written by former animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Their book has often been considered the Animation Bible when it comes to technique and study. The Illusion of Life chronicles a little of the men’s lives, but also tells of the early days of the studio, the first major animation talent that was in place when they came on board in the late 1930’s, and also the methods and techniques from turning moving drawings, into ‘moving drawings.’
And, there you have it. 5 years of these comparisons percolating in my brain, and I finally got (most) of them out. I will admit this is not the only film that seems to spout some metaphors to The Walt Disney Company. Blue Sky Studios‘ 2004 film Robots also contains some comparisons as well, and I may just do an article on them for a future Animated Dissection.