Disney/Pixar Rankings: 10-6

The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.

#10
Ratatouille

2007, directed by Brad Bird

Most of what I said in my last post about Toy Story 2 carries over to Ratatouille, with the caveat that the theoretical in this movie comes out more strongly, and Ratatouille cuts out a lot of the silliness that Toy Story 2 didn’t benefit from. This movie is significantly more focused on the relationship between Remy and Linguini and the baggage both bring to that relationship than Toy Story 2 is focused on anything, I’d say. Everything fans out from their devotion to each other, even when that devotion is really strained. Not all of it is terribly engaging. There’s some real visual cleverness in watching the diminutive Skinner chase Remy around Paris, even though Skinner’s investigation of Linguini’s family history is a slightly weird subplot. Linguini’s budding romance with Colette is no more fascinating than Steve Zahn’s romance with Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites. But the parts which do hit matter much more, and they more than pick up the slack. It’s tough to watch Remy make decisions which we know will ultimately backfire on him, but then again we know how tough it must be to turn away the family he already feels guilty about having outgrown. The relationship between Remy and Django is a really interesting take on a traditional conflict. (I’m sure this says more about me than it does about Ratatouille, but Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper in October Sky come to mind first.) Django, the tough-as-nails father who relies on tradition, was always going to clash with a son who didn’t take his word as gospel. That Remy is so sure that his father’s life is as trash as his diet sticks in his craw, and scenes where the two of them interact are dramatic kindling and, just as importantly, fodder for what goes on between Remy and Linguini. All his instincts tell him to go with Linguini; all his decency says that he can’t give up his family forever.

I’m as surprised as you are that I’ve got this as my fourth best Pixar movie. I would guess that five of the last six Pixar movies I’ve written about (Monsters, Inc., Up, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Toy Story 3) and six out of eight (skip The Good Dinosaur, throw in Coco) have much more ardent fanbases. What makes Ratatouille special is its real focus on what drives someone to make, a drive which is pleasantly unimpeded with the inevitable subplot about drugs or adultery or inability to cope with fame or whatever else we expect from rock biopics these days. (Here’s a weird comparison: Remy and his desire to cook is reminiscent of Vicky Page from The Red Shoes, who has no impetus to dance except for the plain and simple fact that she must.) From the beginning of the movie Remy is frank about the way that food inspires him; even though he’s no chef, he’s still engaged in building out his palate and experimenting with tastes he’s never found before. He does the kind of work to learn about how a professional kitchen functions which he should never have had any reason to put to use. He may not have any serious training, but he’s got a DIY sensibility, enough book learning to put his ideas in context, and the talent which is hardly everything but certainly worth a lot. Ego’s soaring review of Gusteau’s, a review he writes even after he learns that a rat is responsible for the ratatouille that blew him back to the Vichy Regime, is the highest praise that a man used to skewering his targets with zest can give. He refuses to walk back his opposition to Gusteau’s mantra, “Anyone can cook,” but he finds a new way to think about it. “Not everyone can become a great artist,” he says, “but a great artist can come from anywhere.” The movie clued us in to Remy’s competence ages ago, but this sequence, one of the better ones in the studio’s oeuvre, lets us know the fullness of those heights that a chef from “humble origins” can attain. It’s a truly hopeful movie.

#9
Mulan

1998, directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook

It took me a long time to understand why “Honor to Us All” was included in this movie; in related news, I’m a guy. As a boy watching this movie in late ’90s and early 2000s, I couldn’t have said much about societal expectations of women or about the ways that women compel other women to adhere to those rules. It’s that second part that stands out most in “Honor to Us All,” which details the steps Mulan has to take before she can be presented to the matchmaker, who will decide if she is fit to marry or not. Mulan gets a bath, has her hair done, is dressed in restrictive clothes which seem to hate the idea of hands, gets a face full of makeup, and finally picks up jewelry, an apple, and a lucky cricket. The bath, the hair, the clothes, the makeup, and the accessories are all given to her by older women no matter how much she protests. The bath is cold; there’s an audible gasp when they try to shrink her waistline; she makes a face at her face. It’s left to women to ensure that other women will conform to the traditional patterns and expectations. The men are too busy doing other things, like…checkers, or nursing their limps, or whatever. The matchmaker who chews Mulan out (not without some provocation) in front of the entire town is a woman who assures her that she will never bring her family honor by marrying and having kids. The only person who does not seem hellbent on enforcing the code is her father, who is kind enough to reassure her that she’s not a tumor, and who is also the only person she knows who has the leeway to make such a speech. It’s not just the actions above the music, incidentally, which make it clear that the world is trying to fold Mulan in half an eighth time. I had never heard these lyrics before my latest viewing of the movie, and they absolutely blew me away:

We all must serve the Emperor

Who guards us from the Huns:

A man by bearing arms,

A girl by bearing sons.

Yee!

Eddie Murphy’s turn as Mushu (sigh) is not quite as brilliant as Robin Williams in Aladdin, but it’s nearly as good a fit on the whole. Mushu emphatically lacks the kind of power that the Genie can toss around at his leisure, and so he has to rely on quick changes, trickery, and outrageously boldfaced lies to get his way. As much as I like a sequence like “Prince Ali,” in which the Genie can just throw his weight around to create a magnificent parade, there’s way more opportunity for humor in Mushu’s lo-fi attempts to change the course of history to benefit Mulan. He helps get her a name (“Ping! Ping was my best friend growing up!”), even though that’s probably something they should have worked out earlier. He orchestrates orders to get to the front lines, deciding that his character, whose face is hidden and whose hair is cricket antennae, should ride a panda. My absolute favorite comes at the end of a sequence which I really did not investigate with any sort of rigor when I was a little boy watching this movie. Mulan has decided to take a bath; Mushu has warned her against it; well, he was right. Just when it appears that she’s about to be found out, Ling screams, “Something bit me!” Mushu’s head pops up out of the water and, for the first and only time in the movie, he speaks as himself in front of other people besides Mulan: “What a nasty flavor.” This is good enough on its own, but there’s always room for another gag in Mulan, and here it’s Mushu brushing his teeth with a pile of toothpaste that would hospitalize a second-grader. “That was vile,” he tells her. “You owe me big.” Mushu gets progressively less funny over the course of the movie as Mulan gets more and more to do (destroy Hun army, save the Emperor, save China, y’know, nothin’ too substantial), but they find ways for him to remain useful. (This is incidentally the opposite of what happens to the Genie in the final act.) Mulan manages to obliterate Shan Yu in a storm of fireworks, but it’s Mushu who they use to light the rocket in the first place.

#8
The Lion King

1994, directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers

So for me there are three truly great scenes from 1994 (and I reserve the right to add to this list as I see more stuff, yadda yadda yadda). First there’s that late scene in Three Colors: Red where we find out about the ferry accident on the news. That one took my breath away. The scene in Pulp Fiction where we find out how the restaurant robbery ends is a little long for this conversation, but it’s also one of the rare scenes in Tarantino’s filmography that makes you wonder if the fanboys have a point about how good a writer he is. And then there’s the “Circle of Life” sequence which opens The Lion King. This is a triumph of long shots, of some level of realism, of glorious color. Had there ever been a Disney movie that cared if an animated giraffe or a Cape buffalo looked more or less like the real thing? Had there ever been a mist like that in a Disney film rising from the waterfall, or a sheen on a winding waterway as great birds flew overhead?  In the “Circle of Life,” the mid shots are rarely just mid shots; many of them just embarkations, ways for the camera to move into a greater perspective. The storks we see from some distance; another one comes up into the frame and flies off, and then we see them moving across the face of a waterfall. That gives the filmmakers a transition: the elephants below the mountain, the birds above the river, the antelope bounding in the mist. A mid-shot of a young giraffe is a way to pivot to the sight of the great singular herd en route to its destination. Seemingly every trick in the book is up for grabs here; rack focus sends us from ants to zebras, guinea hens in the bottom foreground of the frame move in front of elephants in the top background. The sun looks hazy and strange; it’s because it’s the reflection of the sun which can be distorted further by splashing hooves. We soar with the grandeur of something greater than a hornbill when first we set eyes on Pride Rock. The movie sniffs this sort of excitement again later on when it depicts the wildebeest stampede, which is its own stunning sequence. (The Hans Zimmer fanboys never do seem to bring up his work for The Lion King quickly enough, but there’s a good case to be made that this is his best music. The music underlying that stampede is a triumph.) It doesn’t need to be shot as well as it does to make us react, seeing as we know Scar’s trying to murder half his family in one go. We’d be taken anyway. But there’s nothing about that “Circle of Life” sequence that should be obviously engrossing, and Minkoff and Allers get us simply through textbook filmmaking.

If there’s an obvious issue with the movie, it’s tempo. The most memorable moments of the movie overwhelmingly take place before “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” even though there are clearly meant to be big moments after the fact. Rafiki hits Simba with a stick, Mufasa comes out of the sky and proves that you can scold your kid from beyond the grave, there are two slo-mo sequences, etc. The movie is more or less running on fumes by the time Simba returns to Pride Rock to reclaim his throne. The best of The Lion King is in moments of physical grandeur more than personal interaction, which I know sounds odd when Lion King has as beloved a cast of characters as any movie on this list. As much as I support any Jeremy Irons work, the proof of it is in Scar. It’s his paws squishing a mouse, not his morbid banter with it, that show him as a danger. It’s the way he sinks his claws into his brother before throwing him off that shows his bloodlust, not the sarcastic quip he makes before tossing him off a cliff. Foremost for me, though, is that really quick shot with Zimmer’s music rising above it. Mufasa is being bodied by the wildebeest. Zazu has been knocked out. Simba is still in immense danger, hanging on desperately to a tree branch. Above it all, shrouded by the dust that the stampede has kicked up, Scar and his shadow are still visible on the rocks. His face is intense but still analytical. He is calculating how many more wildebeest there are, how much more punishment Mufasa can take, how much longer Simba can cling to his weak refuge. And he is doubtless deciding what he will do if one or both can dodge the six-hundred-pound bullets he’s fired. His all-too-chatty last stand, marred on its own by Matthew Broderick’s inability to sound genuinely angry in response to Irons, has nothing on those wordless strides.

#7
The Incredibles

2004, directed by Brad Bird

This is the only movie in the top ten which overcomes its animation rather than benefits from it. I’ve said before that The Incredibles looks more like ’90s VeggieTales than mid-aughts Pixar. The people’s faces are real clunky, their bodies are lumps, and their surroundings are occasionally crude. The movie, thank heavens, stays far away from the Uncanny Valley. It’s not like they meant to make Helen look like Holly Hunter or anything, and so this is more a distraction fifteen years later than it was a problem when the movie was originally in theaters. In any case, if The Incredibles has been dinged some for its look, it gets credit for having the best story and the best characters of any superhero movie. There is no mashup between gritty realism and harebrained schemes, and this is no chapter in a corporate “saga” which was made for the amount of money that Burkina Faso will spend on defense for the next eighteen months. This is a story about a family with four discrete members (and a baby, who brings that number up to like, eight or nine) who each become something over the course of the story. It takes a near-death experience for Bob to realize that the man he really wants to be in his middle age is not an internationally adored superhero but a father. Helen, as most moms seem to prove over the course of their momhood, can do it all no matter how long it’s been since she had to do “it” the last time. Violet overcomes the violence of Syndrome’s militia as well as his robot and finds the confidence that most high school girls would kill to have. Dash is the most uncomplicated of the bunch, but the chance to show what he can do in circumstances much more tense than a football game makes him more well-adjusted in the end than maybe any other boy his age on the planet. (Only some of this carries over to Incredibles 2, but whatever, this is its own movie.) When they find themselves fighting Syndrome in separate circumstances, they are caught on the back foot. When the Underminer appears in the last thirty seconds of the movie, there are smirks shared between them while they’re standing in that tight formation. A family that used to be pulling in different directions is now united without a hint of corny junk.

One of the great findings of Jawn Voyage (said “Jawn Voyaszh,” not “Jawn Voyage”) is that The Incredibles largely takes place in the early 1970s. That makes the Incredibles movies the only Pixar efforts to really count as period films, and there are so many wonderful little touches that make those come through. The modern design of houses and furniture is really the most beautiful thing about the movie. Syndrome’s lair on the colorfully named Nomanisan Island maybe a hive of scum and villainy, but it’s a marvelously efficient hive as well, filled with transit pods and flying saucers and spheroid Omnidroids. It’s never an overstated element of the film—you can tell in the clothes and the hairstyles, to some extent, but the movie doesn’t stuff them down your throat in an attempt to look authentic—but that time period adds another layer of complexity to the film. The early ’70s are a prime time for divorce in our national history, and it’s telling that the kids think about it no matter what else is going on. On the same day that Violet and Dash sneak onto a jet that their mother is flying, survive an attack on said jet by missiles, and then have to swim to an island in the distance where the missiles came from, they have an exchange about what’s up with their parents. Violet tries to impress on Dash the seriousness of the situation: “Mom and Dad’s lives could be in danger…or worse, their marriage.” It’s a harrowing thought that hangs over the movie, and Helen’s reaction to seeing Bob on Nomanisan backs up Violet’s hunch. Likewise prevalent in the early ’70s was second-wave feminism, and Helen’s increasing independence over the course of the movie is reflective of that as well. Our first sight of her is fifteen years earlier, when she gets to a purse-snatcher before Bob and the two of them quarrel over whose good deed it is. (The purse-snatcher sides with Helen.) We’re given just enough time to forget how potent she is, and goodness knows that a decade and a half has sanded down her own recollection of her talent. It’s only Edna, who I apologize for waiting this long to mention, who snaps her back into shape. “Pull yourself together!” she shouts. “You are Elastigirl!” Once she decides to rescue her husband from his captor and himself, she proves that although they make a great team, needing him is another thing altogether.

#6
Fantasia

1940, directed by…I’ve written this out before and I don’t really feel like doing it again, ugh, next time get a supervising director…Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson

Fantasia is sort of a slow starter. It’s not that getting an introduction to the orchestra or to the though process behind Fantasia is uninteresting, but this is a movie that walks rather than runs to the sequences that will stand the test of decades. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is probably the film’s most famous and enduring sequence, and the simplicity of it (and the second-best bassoon solo in the movie) makes it special. Mickey in a funny hat teaches a broom how to haul water from a fountain to a tub, and then he falls asleep to discover that he has lost control of the little magic he knows how to do. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” works because of the story and the charisma of Mickey Mouse and his stern and not even remotely subtle master, Yen Sid. Plot is not a guarantee of world-beating quality in Fantasia; the little stories from The Rite of Spring outclass the music, which is probably the worst performance of the music I’ve ever heard. Yet that’s not saying all that much…the dinosaurs are interesting but lack the interest of many of the other more mundane creatures we’ll meet later. In the “Dance of the Hours” sequence, ostriches and crocodiles and hippopotamuses are the order of the day, and while they lack the inherent elan of dinos, the surprising and acrobatic ballet they get themselves into is more engrossing. On the other side of things, there is barely a plot in the double feature which ends the film. Night on Bald Mountain and “Ave Maria” are paired together, and neither one has any story to speak of. There are happenings in the former, happenings conducted by Leopold Stokowski’s evil twin, Chernabog, and which compare to some of the more dramatic moments in Haxan. Skeletons and ghosts leave their graves on Chernabog’s command. Demons dance in the flame and are contorted and shaped by the enormous devil. But when dawn come and the strains of Schubert are heard, the winged monster enfolds himself. What follows is honest-to-goodness art.

“Ave Maria” is purely evocative, using bare shapes and colors to as a way to some of the most lovely, maybe even holiest images I’ve ever seen in film. While it lacks the tearjerking brilliance of “Ave Maria,” there may not be another piece of the film so dramatic or ambitious as the selections from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. There is no story to pull off the shelf for the Pastoral Symphony, and so we get transports of delight as the animators place Beethoven’s music over the citizenry of Greek myth. Humans aren’t quite verboten here, but they certainly don’t rank very highly among the brilliantly colored centaurs and winged horses and fauns who populate this ancient Greek countryside. There’s romance and courtship, energy, music, and the kind of color that belongs to the Technicolor movies of the late ’30s and early ’40s. The hues of Tara and Oz are somehow muted in comparison with what happens at the bacchanalia which punctuates this segment.

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