Ratatouille (2007)

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RatatouilleRats must be the most hated of pests and animals in general. But trust Disney’s Pixar to take the tale of a rodent right out of the Parisian sewers and make him one of the most likeable and cuddliest animated characters of all time. Very few have enjoyed as continuous a success as the studios’ computer animation division. Be it with toys, fish, superheroes or talking cars, their well of talent is seemingly bottomless. Written and co-directed by Brad Bird, the man behind “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” shows all the hallmarks of a true Pixar production that is thoroughly enjoyable for children and adults alike though thankfully steering clear of the endless pop-culture that perpetrate so much of the Dreamworks output. It’s an ode to cuisine, to France and more universally – to friendship, self-belief and to la vie that makes it virtually impossible to dislike.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) has always been a special rat in his colony. Not only does he have the most delicate nose around, he has always dreamt of becoming a gourmet chef at Gusteau’s famous restaurant in Paris. Ill luck and a very evil granny sees the rat pack abandon their cosy country home in panic and swept downriver, Remy is tragically separated from his friends. After some time in the sewers, Remy realises he is in fact in the aforementioned city, right at the kitchen door of said famous restaurant. Since Gusteau has since died, the place is now run by tyrannical head-chef Skinner (Ian Holm) who would turn it into a lucrative packed food company. Through necessity, Remy teams up with luckless escuelerie Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) to save the restaurant from Skinner, harsh critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) and to win the heart of fellow cook Colette (Janeane Garofalo). And if those colourful character names enticed you in the least, this is made for you – the entire film is hilarious, heartfelt and absolute genius. The love that the Pixar folks have got for their characters is visible in every frame. Equally, the film manages to instil a deep love for food and cooking. This may not be something we’d expect from a children’s film but we didn’t think that about fish either.

Very often in films that feature animals, these are made much too human in their behaviour but that too has been avoided. Remy, even though he can talk, never mind cook, communicates best without any words at all: One of the film’s best scenes is that in which Linguini, told to destroy the rat after Remy is caught in the kitchen, cannot bear to drown him. For all the success Dreamworks have had with “Shrek” and others, they simply cannot match Pixar for touching moments of pure emotion just like this one. In this regard, Bird’s screenplay deserves the ultimate credit. His story is incredibly deep and rich for what is essentially a children’s movie. “Ratatouille” is about dreaming big and the self-belief required to see those wishes through. Remy is constantly being told by his father (Brian Dennehy) and rodent friends that a rat has no place among humans. Although he loves Remy he would rather have his son’s keen nose sniffing out rat poison than poking around a gourmet restaurant. If the film can instil such determination and inspire such dreams in its audience -which no doubt it will – then it has succeeded. Deservedly garnering another Oscar for Pixar, “Ratatouille” is their best film to date and any lingering doubts as to the longevity of their idea pool will have been dispelled.

Ratatouille OSTWith “The Incredibles” Michael Giacchino replaced Randy Newman as Pixar’s composer of choice and after providing a great spy-parody score, Giacchino was hired for this film too. Through gentle waltzes, cool salsa and orchestral hyperactivity, the composer perfectly captures the tone of the adventure. Though instruments like the accordion to represent France are cliched, the score kicks off with a great rendition of the Marseillaise, leading into a spirited performance of one of the main themes. This is heard again in the album’s best cue “Dinner Rush” which includes a full orchestral arrangement. Remy’s theme is a bit on the short side on album, making appearances in the Camille song “Le Festin” as well as on beautiful piano and clarinet in the last track. In between Giacchino will have you dancing and whistling along with great action music (“100 Rat Dash” and “The Paper Chase”) and charmingly quirky material like “This is Me” and “Remy Drives a Linguini.” Listeners will hear similarities with Giacchino’s later theme for “Up” and although that score won him an Oscar, this score is probably the superior of the two. Highly enjoyable all round, this is Michael Giachino’s best music to date and will probably see him hired for animated films for years to come. Only the underuse of Remy’s theme prevents it from the full five.

Like “Up” two years later, “Ratatouille” is high on appeal for both adults and children, playing with comedic adventure and much deeper messages, it’s entirely adorable. Nobody within animation (and only very few without) can come close to Pixar’s masterful style.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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The Nightmare Before ChristmasIt’s a commonly held misconception that Tim Burton directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” And while the directorial reins were in fact taken by Henry Selick who would later go on to direct “Coraline,” the immensely successful film does have the former’s thumbprint all over it. Indeed, it is defining of Burton’s filmic style and imagination and has over the past fifteen years not only become synonymous with his name but also with a whole generation of goth and emo sub-culture taking inspiration from his zany visuals. Established as a cult classic of sorts and certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” masquerades as a children’s movie when really it is everything but, containing the sort of dark humour that is firmly aimed at an adult audience, yet doing away with the endless pop-culture references that would suffocate some of the animated genre in the new millennium. Originally conceived as a poem by Tim Burton in his days as an animator, the film tells its story as a musical and with over 200 puppets animated through stop-motion that owes a lot of similarities to the British Aardman studio.

In a fantasy world where every holiday season or occasion is run by its own town, we are introduced to Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman) and his gang of monsters, demons, ghosts and other nasties responsible for Halloween. And although he’s the Pumpkin King, Jack is tired of the endless scares and feels that something is missing in his life. After a chance discovery of “Christmas town” he becomes obsessed with this second holiday, introduces it to his friends and decides that this year he wants Christmas for himself. The citizens of Halloween are well meaning and eagerly prepare, unaware that their unconventional methods will ruin the festive season for everyone else. As a complication, the head of Christmas town, the brilliantly named Sandy Claws is kidnapped and ends up in the hands of the dangerous Oogie Boogey (Ken Page). Only the efforts of rag-doll Sally (Catherine O’Hara) who has feelings for Jack might be able to set things right on time. The tale is exactly as weird and crooked as it sounds and is brilliantly staged from start to finish. Credit is due to Burton, Selick and indeed all the animators who executed such an uncanny concept with a love that shows on screen in all the tiny details (most of which will probably go unnoticed on a first viewing) of their twisted fairytale.

The character creation and production design is at the forefront of the film’s quirky charm  – just think of that iconically twirled hilltop – although it is divisive in so far as it will be a deterrent to some viewers, as it will entice others. That is not to say “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a love it or hate it affair. Except for younger children that is, who will probably spill some tears on the filmmakers’ gleeful destruction of their favourite holiday. But therein lies the genius of the film: So different is its approach, it is instantly memorable. The portrayal of Oogie Boogie’s casino-like lair in the film’s second half is at odds with the rest of the film’s visuals and his song too does not fit in although of course a boogie would the most appropriate kind. Curiously a sub-plot between Sally and her creator, the mad scientist Dr. Finklestein is also left hanging in the ropes at the film’s conclusion, offering no closure. But then, these are small detractions and do not affect the overall impact of the film that is a very positive one.

The Nightmare Before Christmas OSTThe film’s other great strength of course, lies in the artistic talents of a certain Danny Elfman who not only wrote all the songs and underscore but also voices several of the characters including Skellington Jack. His vision has always been at one with Tim Burton’s and is very much in evidence as images and music are clearly tailored for each other. From the opening “This is Halloween,” wondrous discovery of “What’s This?” to the lament that is “Sally’s Song,” Elfman’s music overflows with theme and style that is deeply emotional as it is off-kilter and schizophrenic. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as well as earlier collaboration with Burton on “Edward Scissorhands,” forms the culmination of the composer’s career. Which of the two tops the list will differ for every listener but “Nightmare” has an exceptionally strong case with beautiful thematic music that perpetrates the underscore as well as the show-piece songs. Elfman’s abilities to combine the two is demonstrated by the strong end-credits suite that neatly sums up all the main ideas from the film. On album, the score has received several treatments, but sadly all of Disney’s double-disc efforts have yielded only disappointing and in some cases truly terrible remixes of the Marilyn Manson and Fall Out Boy kind. Restricted to the first disc however, you will be treated to a masterpiece not only in the animated or musical film genres but some extremely sticky (in a good sense) material. By rights it demands its place in every score collection.

This is truly a film that needs to be seen to be believed. And that is by no means a criticism: “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a visual treat and can transcend the sub-cultures that adore it most and be appreciated by the regular viewer. It’s Tim Burton at his demented best. Except it’s not Tim Burton. Oh stop…

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Toy Story 3 (2010)

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Toy Story 3In terms box-office gross, “Toy Story 3” has already become the most successful Pixar film ever, passing out 2003’s “Finding Nemo”. This third entry brings to a close a franchise that caught on with children as well as adults in the mid to late 90s and keeps that very close at hand: Those children have grown up and will be the ones who understand the ‘grown-ups’ humour this time round. Fittingly then, the plot takes place as the Toys’ owner Andy is leaving home for college in a week and must decide whether or not he wants to throw out the things he hasn’t played with in years. As with every other Pixar movie to date, the underlying themes are decidedly adult – here it’s growing up and moving on. However not at any point does it get quite as nostalgic as last years fantastic “Up”.

Convince they’re set for the garbage the Toys desperately debate their preferred course of action. By a series of terrible coincidences Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang end up being donated to Sunnyside day-care centre rather than ending up in the attic. At first all of them, with the exception of Woody think it’s not so bad after all. The day-care led on toy-level by purple, plush, strawberry scented bear Lotso-O’-Huggin’ Bear “You may call be Lotso!” (voiced by Ned Beatty) seems like a quiet retirement home for them, a place where toys are peacefully played with by loving children. What they don’t realise is that Lotso in fact runs the place Mafia-style, complete with gambling, torture and punishment with toys first having to attain said retirement status, a task made near impossible by the unloving toddlers of the centre. Cue quest to break out!

This is by far the funniest “Toy Story” – for the adults anyway. Much of it is downright hilarious, all the characters providing laugh-out-loud moments: “This is the perfect time to be hysterical!” cries Hamm the Piggy-Bank and indeed it is: the characters, new as well as returning are an absolute delight, from the bitter Lotso to Barbie’s new-found friend Ken  (Michael Keaton) who is desperately trying to shake off his reputation of being a “girl’s toy” and the ‘in-character’ Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton). And while it may be a swipe in the direction of Dreamworks and Puss in Boots, Spanish Buzz will manage to squeeze every last drop of laughter out of you. In fact there is so much fun to be had here that all the heart-breaking emotional moments of owner-less toys who want only to be loved might bring you roughly back to earth. When they do appear, they are not overdone with cheese but are simple yet highly poignant. Pixar have always between masters at this stuff and it certainly matures further here.  Those who grew up with the earlier movies may well shed a tear towards the end. A particular moment of holding hands while facing into almost certain death at a landfill site is the climax of this and makes one wonder just how terrified a five year-old would be at this point.

The one thing I cannot comment on is whether the 3D employed is any good. The version I saw was good old 2D which was just fine. Reliable sources tell me the technology was subtly employed here and not in any way spectacular. I’ll take their word for it. Not that it matters: The “Toy Story” movies have always been about so much more than just visual trickery despite being the first and probably best computer animated series ever. So as of now, this looks to be Woody and Co’s final adventure and it’s been ended perfectly.

Toy Story 3 OSTAlthough he’s been replaced as Pixar regular by the hugely talented Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman has returned to score (and sing) this final chapter. Simply put, he doesn’t reinvent the wheel on this outing, listeners and fans of the first two will be on familiar ground with the mix of jazzy song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and the more muscular western Americana style that characterises Woody. There is also some stylish guitaring to portray Lotso and Spanish Buzz (and don’t forget the Spanish end-credits rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”!). In keeping with Disney’s (frankly quite stupid) no-CD policy, the soundtrack was released as a digital download only. But unless you’re sick of predictability this score is worth a listen.

We won’t be seeing any more of these characters but “Toy Story 3” brings the franchise to a very satisfying conclusion. It’s great comedy viewing with an adult twist but avoids silly pop-culture references that are now as tired as “Shrek the Third”. A triumphant effort!

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Up (2009)

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UpPixar, Disney’s computer animation division has over the past fifteen years enjoyed success that has even outdone the more traditional hand-drawn output of its owner. Let’s not forget that these are the people behind “Toy Story” and its sequels(s), “Finding Nemo,”  “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” and the movie is directed by Pete Doctor who previously worked on “Monster’s Inc.” As it was released in cinemas in the new 3D format, this film pushes new boundaries in animation technology but thankfully the story and character creation never suffer under this. The result is 90 minutes of unabating fun and adventure and a new masterpiece to add to Pixar’s ever growing collection.

Carl Fredricksen is a young budding explorer who dreams of adventure just like his hero Charles Muntz. One day he meets another enthusiast Ellie and together they go on an adventure of a different kind: That of life. Fast forward to the present day and Carl has grown old and grumpy, his beloved wife Ellie has died and his cosy house is threatened by construction diggers on all sides. Following an alternation with a construction worker he is forced to enter a retirement home. However instead of giving in, Carl begins on a quest to fulfil Ellie’s dream – to have a house at the top of Paradise Falls in the Amazon, he ties thousands of helium balloons to the house, literally take it there. What he hadn’t counted on is enthusiastic young wilderness-explorer-boy-scout Russell who accidentally ends up on his porch when the house takes off. The house is blown away into a storm and sets the unlikely duo off a new adventure in South America, with an eventual reunion with Carl’s boyhood hero.

What Pixar have always managed very well is to make children’s movies that contain very adult themes (such as parenthood in “Finding Nemo”) and this trend continues here and many of the images on show here may be hard for young children to swallow. Indeed some of “Up” may well make you cry. One of the film’s most heart-rendering comes close to the beginning as we see Carl and Ellie live through the trials and tribulations of life – the loss of their child, the chasing of a childhood dream that will never be realised while the pair are alive. Not a word of dialogue is needed to portray the love, care and ultimately heart-break that defines their relationship, Doctor confident in letting the images and the music (more about that later!) speak for themselves. But when dialogue is employed, it’s smart and genuinely funny.

That’s not to say however that up isn’t funny and many Pixar and Disney trademarks are present here: Enthusiastic but inexperienced youngster. Check. A strong sense of childhood awe and wonder. Check. Annoying but loveable talking animal. Check! This is arguably the studio’s most enjoyable, exhilarating and funniest film to date, every frame filled with incredible detail and colour. Each character is meticulously and lovingly realised and there is never a dull moment. The film’s main emotional heart lies with the contrast between Carl and Russell, on one side the grumpy but kind at heart Carl and the youthful and innocent concrete-explorer Russell on the other. While Carl’s character, his emotions and ticks are clearly the centerpiece of the show, it’s  Dug the adorable (and talking) dog that gets some the film’s biggest laughs. His dopey and oddball energy are simply hilarious and if his exclamation of Squirrel!!! doesn’t crack a giant grin on your face you must be dead inside.

Up OSTThe music for “Up” was composed by Michael Giacchino. The composer enjoyed a bumper year in 2009 with “Star Trek” and “Up” as well as the score for the “Lost” TV series. And that is before we even mention the truckloads of gongs heaped on this score during awards season! Giacchino is well versed in animation as well of course having supplied excellent score to “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” and in many ways “Up” is a continuation of that style. Waltzes, comedy and light jazz are prominent throughout and the highlight of the score is the cue Married Life which accompanies the sequence described above. Unfortunately Disney never released this album on CD and it is only available as a digital download at inferior quality. However by all accounts a great  score.

Up was the deserved winner of the Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars. It is perhaps one of the best animated films ever and defines the genre as it exists today. It’s a damn near perfect film so see it if you can.

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