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Cooking with the rat 

Disney’s scrumptious new animated film and the slow death of the ‘Die Hard’ franchise.

RAT-TASTIC: Disney's latest.
  • RAT-TASTIC: Disney's latest.

 

It’s the easiest thing in the world to turn a scornful eye upon the Disney Corporation. There’s probably no other company in the world so hell-bent on shamelessly smacking children upside the head with marketing for every last spin-off product it can think to slap a logo on. Honestly, watch the sheer number of previews on the average Disney DVD and you’ll be wondering if Leni Riefenstahl somehow came back from the grave and applied what she learned of building the Hitlerjugend to recruiting Mousketeers.

But however cynical and contemptuous battle-hardened parents may be in the face of all that marketing, there is one thing Disney, and its computer animation company Pixar, seem to be able to do almost without fail: They can make really damn good movies. Not just good movies for kids, but good movies, movies that today’s kids will enjoy on a completely different level when they grow up. It’s a string of successes worthy of the golden era of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, so long that a lot of critics greet each new release wondering if this time the other shoe will drop.

Well, if it’s going to happen, it won’t be this time. “Ratatouille,” Pixar’s latest computer-animated feature film, will likely not prove to be the biggest smash hit they’ve ever done, but the quality of the film won’t be at fault here. “Ratatouille” is, simply put, one of the better films they’ve put out in the last few years.

The story is about a rat and his boy — a country rodent named Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) who has been born with the gift of an otherworldly sense of smell and taste that compels him to become a great chef, and a bumbling and talentless restaurant garbage boy named Linguini Alfredo (voiced by Lou Romano). After a chance happening in the kitchen of a famous Parisian restaurant, Remy improves the soup du jour, and Linguini gets the credit for it. Forced by a suspicious chef to repeat his success, Linguini works out a system with Remy whereby the rat can control the boy’s movements like a marionette and guide him through the kitchen.

Before long, Linguini’s the most celebrated chef in Paris, but he still has to deal with angry chefs, health inspectors, the seduction of fame, a terrifying food critic (played bone-dry by Peter O’Toole) and, of course, Love.

This may not be the big smash that some of Disney’s more recent films have been, because while there is plenty of action (the sort of rat-in-the-kitchen antics you’re anticipating, but done in a way that would make Buster Keaton proud), there are none of the race cars or heroes or toys-come-to-life or fairy tale princesses that are the normal stock in trade of a big Disney hit. Here they’ve gone back to “Lady and the Tramp” territory, giving us a small-scale drama of dreams and the ugly collision of warring worlds.

As to the animation itself, it’s at least as good as it’s ever been, both on the technical side and the artistic. One thing Disney animators have gotten very good at is using perspective in very innovative ways, and here you’ll see them use that to stretch our point of view from Remy’s to Linguini’s and back down again in ways that will make you feel like both rat and human, a neat trick that that makes our familiar world look wonderfully unfamiliar. Paris itself has never looked more stunning, either.

There’ll be plenty of pratfalls and patootie jokes to keep the kids’ attention, though. I daresay you’ll love the movie more than they will, but they will indeed love it. And hey, if a movie can get them to eat their vegetables or endure the horror that is trying new food, then that’s gotta be worth the ticket price alone.

Matthew Reed

“Live Free or Die Hard”

Few films of its era have aged as well as “Die Hard. It’s every bit as thrilling a spectacle today as it was in 1988. The action sequences have an authenticity lacking in contemporary movies where computer effects have replaced actual stunt work. Its Swiss watch of a plot generates thrills without sacrificing logic. Even its jokes are funnier than the material in 90 percent of today’s comedies. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of 1990’s “Die Hard 2,” and, to an even lesser extent, of 1995’s “Die Hard with a Vengeance. Now the series’ downward spiral is complete with the arrival of “Live Free or Die Hard.” What was once a landmark action epic has degenerated into yet another passably entertaining, immediately forgettable orgy of explosions, chases and breaking glass.

The plot, such as it is, concerns detective John McClane darting around Washington, D.C., with a hacker named Matt (Justin Long, best known as the Mac guy in those ubiquitous Apple ads) trying to thwart a cyber terrorist (Timothy Olyphant of “Deadwood”) who has shut down America’s transportation, utilities and law enforcement systems in order to loot the country’s banks. I think. Or he may be trying to get revenge on the government who, we’re told several times, “crucified” him. I’m still not sure. The whole thing makes the idea of blowing up an office tower to steal $600 million in bearer bonds seem like a marvel of simplicity.

The film’s fundamental mistake is buying into the misconception common to so many action movies these days — the notion that watching people type on their computers is inherently exciting. It’s not. From there the film plays like a stale version of its predecessor. In the first installment the action set pieces were necessary to the storyline. Willis had to tie that fire hose around his waist and jump off the top of Nakatomi Plaza. In “Live Free or Die Hard” the action just seems random and unnecessary. In one scene Willis drives an SUV down an elevator shaft because…well, it’s a totally awesome stunt. The film also lacks any sense of logic or consistency. At one point, we’re told that D.C. is totally gridlocked. Yet Willis and Long are able to steal a car and drive to West Virginia, a trip that seems to take about five minutes. Willis’ once-pithy remarks (“Do I sound like I’m ordering a f---ing pizza?”) have been reduced to bland threats like “I’ll beat you to death in your home.” Even the series’ signature line, “Yippie-ki-yay motherf---er,” has been compromised so as not to threaten its PG-13 rating. I mean, you wouldn’t want the kids to hear the f-word while watching an entire city get blown up and dozens of people getting killed.

Still, the movie is not without its pleasures. Though he’s no Alan Rickman, Olyphant has some great moments, particularly as his frustration with Willis begins to mount. Willis comes up with brilliant uses for both a fire hydrant and an extinguisher. Ultimately, the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it’s a shame that a series that once defined a genre now sets out to do nothing more than offer mindless, violent escapism.

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