The Summer of Sequels is almost here: Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Shrek the Third, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer ... and with all of these continuing stories, you might be hankering for an entertaining original and funny movie for you and the family to check out!
In preparation for the June 29 release of Ratatouille, Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar invited MovieWeb.com to their Emeryville super-campus for an extensive look at the inner workings of the world's leading animation studio. Led by Pixar University's Dean Randy Nelson, it was a detailed educational primer leading up to a sit down with Brad Bird in the editing room. The tour served as an impressive look at how positive reinforcement and intensive thought feeds the machine of making the most successful movie-for-movie studio of all time. It also served as a way to show the world that anyone employed anywhere else has, in comparison, a really uncool work environment.
It'd be possible to write novel length thesis essays on the philosophies, psychologies, architectural layouts and crazy methods that all make up the foundation of the company, but that's for another place and time entirely. There's really just one thing you need to know about Pixar: It's a creative mecca that spoils their workaholic employees with creative nutrition which, as far as box office has proven, is a smart business decision. They run off of a simple dogma: People are the most valuable tool. Everyone has a priceless perspective and everyone is treated as such. Properly maintain the singular asset and everything else falls into place.
Not only are their human resources treated with care, a "team sport" mentality runs rampant. Extreme measures are taken to make sure all those on the lush 14 acre property are communally aware what everyone else is up to. Lining the walls of the hallways are inspirational sketches, objects and storyboards of current / future projects so everyone walking the building can have a complete understanding of what each movie is trying to achieve. This way, everyone can be educated enough share their own ideas and viewpoints.
Speaking of education... To ensure the genius factor continues to grow, each employee, be they lead animators or bathroom janitors, are allowed to take 4 hours per work week to attend classes at Pixar University (a.k.a. the adorably raunchy abbreviation "P.U.") to learn to draw/program/write and overall increase the net weight of their grey matter.
Hellbent on squeezing every ounce of creative fluid out of every employee, the campus is complete with pools, grassy valleys, an in house massage parlor and a spaciously designed interior layout (they even sport a giant indoor bridge) that would make even the most functional of feng-shui masters feel inefficient and lazy. Perfectly put by Ratatouille's lead, Patton Oswalt, "It's like Willy Wonka's place without the creepiness"."
It's hard to write about how this company works without sounding like a P.R. pamphlet trying to suck in new recruits (by the way, they even have a large room dedicated entirely to holding every cereal known to man under the belief that creativity comes from eating the milk drowned breakfast food), but it's hard to ignore the exciting atmosphere created solely to elicit good ideas. The Pixar campus appears to be a well oiled machine, lubricated with the positively reinforced collective intelligence of some of the world's best artists and run in a way that is, for some reason, friendlier and more open minded than most known business models.
After a significant amount of time spent on safari thru the building, we were led into the edit bay of their most recent offspring of all this artistic ambience: Ratatouille.
The editorial section was themed like a French Cafe. A pod of coffee shop tables randomly sat in the middle of the hall.
An overworked-looking Brad Bird stepped in to talk about about the movie, detailing that the story is an interesting take on the "follow your dreams" theme told thru Remy the rat, an aspiring chef in a world of vermin-phobic humans. Bird's presence was essentially about setting up and presenting clips. To prevent redundancy, he held off more in-depth explanations of his experiences for his Wonder Con panel.
Some Minor Spoilers ahead...
Having just created his first culinary work of art (a mushroom accidentally infused with cheese via an electrocution accident), Remy has become obsessed with the idea of jazzing it up with ingredients found in an old lady's kitchen. Dragging his brother Amil along for the ride, they leave their safe family living space inside the ceiling to go on a search and rescue mission for spices, all without alerting the nearby sleeping grandma. While looking, Remy sees his hero, the late Chef Gusteau, on TV. Drawn in by his philosophies (and giving us the moral of "only the fearless can be great"), Remy carelessly approaches the TV, wakes up the old lady and lets action commence as the geriatric destroys her own house trying to exterminate the rats via shotgun and toxic gas. In the process, the ceiling collapses and the entire rats nest of Remy's additional friends and family are exposed and frantically exodus to the nearby river.
With the sensibility of an action flick, Remy, while dodging bullets and navigating rushing waters, is separated from his family when the river becomes a sewer maze. The adventure eventually leads him to the eroding attics of a building where, thru the holes and cracks, we see all sorts of colorful/funny on-goings of French apartment dwellers. The journey eventually leads up to the top of Remy's premiere destination: Chef Gusteau's famous restaurant. As seen in Bird's earlier movies, a variety of tones and feelings (action & suspense immediately followed by situations of lonliness and isolation followed by situational comedy) are projected in a short amount of time.
We meet Linguini, the kitchen's new garbage boy, who has been given the task of throwing a captured Remy into the River. They discover that they can communicate with each other and establish a strange relationship of helping each other cook.
Bird stated it was important to spend a lot of time on this scene to make it relatable/beleivable instead of absurd. "We've dedicated about 10 minutes of screen time, maybe more...to this very hard to believe idea. You can buy this very hard to believe idea if you lead people along step by step."
"One things I discovered, which was a gold mine, is that female Chef's have an uphill climb in France."
Linguini meets though-cookie cook Collette (Janeane Garofalo), a professional female in a male dominant industry who is bitter at gender bias and even more resentful that she has to work with "the new guy." Linguini's intimidated by her talent and potential love appeal, not to mention the fact that she threatens him with knives. Bird informed us that more fun occurs via Remy's conflicting opinions on her cooking styles.
The bad guy's bad intentions are further proven as a fast talking marketing executive converses with the villainous restaurant head Chef Skinner (Ian Holm) about taking Gusteau's sacred recipes and making them microwavable frozen snacks, thus cheapening a beloved legacy in the name of money. Skinner loves the idea, which is proposed with the satire based visual aids of Chef Gusteau life sized cardboard cutouts in an array of national stereotypes (i.e. sombrero clad Gusteau Mexican appetizers, a dog-chef promoting corn dog bites, etc).
Remy finds himself in Chef Skinner's office, still packed with cardboard Gusteau's of every national cliché. He finds a piece of paper whose contents are very unfavorable for our villain which logically leads to the next clip...
It's your typical good guy/bad guy chase scene, but done human vs rat thru a busy Paris afternoon:
Remy, in possession of a piece of paper that can forever alter the course of the plot, is chased thru town by evil Skinner. Fast paced adventure ensues as Remy kinetically runs on walls, jumps into trees and eventually escapes with some stunt infused heroic action.
Peter O'Toole plays Anton Ego, a stuck up food critic whose negative reviews serve as fatal blows to whichever establish he inflicts his words upon. It's safe to say this guy is fairly evil, being that his type writer resembled a human skull and his office was the shape of a coffin. As far as we were shown, his primary motivation is to ensure his self important, unhappy reviews are the singular force in making or breaking a restaurant (hence his last name).
Our visit was capped with a trip to their screening room to preview the domestic and international trailers. When the lights went down, the ceiling lit up with a galaxy of twinkling stars and moving comets as the atmospheric sound of crickets played.
The 7 clips shown gave a very good impression of what many would already assume: Pixar has a fun story with a fast pace, lots of detail and entertaining ongoings crammed into every inch of the film (or, I guess, every pixel). The characters seem relatable, the concept is unique and the energy is high. There's lot of potential for fertile conflict when looking at the stigma of dirty rats contrasted against snobby food fanatics in the high stakes world of gourmet cooking.
A common thread in action cinema appears to be the constant use of low angles (i.e. Michael Bay'esque camera work), but in this case, an over abundance of it is appropriate for the character size, feeding the storytelling function of showing an alienating world that can be overtly huge and intimidating for our 5 inch tall hero.
Ratatouille hits theaters June 29th and Bird assures us that it'll be good despite the fact that it's one of the only summer movies that is not a sequel. "Just think of it as the prequel to the sequel!"