(Brad Bird, USA, 2007)


Have you heard the one about the rat who wanted to break away from the pack and become a gourmet chef? If this premise reminds you of the penguin who wanted to be a tap dancer, or the ant who wanted to see the world, you are well acquainted with the blockbusters of contemporary mainstream animation.


Most of these films seem to be based on an identical story template. First, the animal or insect who is the main character – and this character is almost always male – cannot bear to be merely “one of the tribe”. He longs to be a special individual, standing out from – and eventually reforming – the quasi-Stalinist organisation of his social group. It is not hard to see here a lighthearted affirmation of the supposedly splendid values of Western democracy, and especially the gold old American Dream.


Second, contemporary feature-length animations are slavishly devoted to Joseph Campbell’s ideas about so-called universal mythology. According to Campbell (and his litter of obedient imitators), the immortal tale of the “hero’s journey” involves the central character venturing out into a dangerous, unknown zone in order to become the best he can be.


In the Pixar production Ratatouille, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) cannot abide the taste of his fellow rats for garbage. His dream – fuelled by the glorious career of French chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) – is to cook for the clientele of a Parisian restaurant. Which, via the intermediary of young kitchen assistant Linguini (Lou Romano), he secretly manages to do.


Director Brad Bird, co-ordinating a large army of animators and software wizards, delivers expert entertainment. The 1,001 exaggerated clichés of Frenchness are particularly enjoyable. The film is frequently witty and inventive. But the same old heroic journey has begun to grate.


In 1950, the great Frank Tashlin created a melancholic children’s book, The Possum That Didn’t. It concerns a smiling possum who, because he hangs upside down, is perceived by human spectators as forever frowning. So he is forcibly transplanted to the city where his newfound depression – expressing itself in a real frown – is taken as a heart-warming smile. A 10-minute animated version of it was done in 1972 (alas, not by Tashlin himself, who died that year) for television, a bare-bones affair.


I dare Pixar to adapt The Possum That Didn’t, in all its brutal sadness, as the next blockbuster animation.

MORE Pixar: Finding Nemo, Toy Story

© Adrian Martin August 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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