On Wednesday I talked about how part of the appeal of Pixar’s Ratatouille lay in its beautifully rendered images of food. It’s quite a challenge to use film, something where taste and smell play very little part (barring the return of smell-o-vision anyway), to convey genuinely appetising food just from visuals. It’s even harder, then, to take a set of pixels and turn them into something that looks genuinely mouth watering. So, how do other animated dinners match up?
Food was also on the agenda for Pixar’s sister studio Disney Animations a couple of years after Ratatouille when they made a timely and welcome return to the traditional hand drawn animation style on which they made their name. The Princess and the Frog presented a beautifully animated vision of New Orleans in which Disney placed one of their less conventional princesses. Not only was Tiana the first African-American to join the typically Aryan pantheon of Disney princesses, but she harboured some quite different dreams and wishes to most of her predecessors – namely the desire to run a restaurant.
While the combination of traditional animation and a more up to date lead made for a return to form for the Mouse House, one area where they dropped well behind the rat was in the food on show. Maybe Disney didn’t go the extra mile in their research the way Pixar did, or maybe fine French dining is inherently more appealing than Louisiana soul food, I don’t know, but what is clear is that Remy’s ratatouille looks far better than Tiana’s gumbo and beignets. Worse, while Remy delicately mixes oils, vinegar, herbs and spices, Tiana seems to utilise a sprinkle of tabasco as the literally universal cure for any dish that’s lacking a little something.
Tiana’s successor on the revolving Disney throne was a little less keen on cookery work, having her own uses for kitchen equipment, but she was hardly the first Disney Princess to enjoy a good meal. It must be said, though, that Belle’s enjoyment of the lavish feast on offer to her in Beauty and the Beast‘s signature musical number would probably be greater if she had a chance to have more of a taste before it’s rapidly whisked away.
On second thoughts, it’s probably best that she doesn’t dwell on the fact that every bit of cutlery she puts in her mouth is a sentient being. One thing that can be said for it, though, is that at least Beauty and the Beast‘s French setting allows it to share Ratatouille‘s unusually pro-alcohol sentiments for a children’s film. Amongst the other princesses, Snow White enjoyed little luck with the traditional “apple a day” advice and Ariel was more excited (albeit confused) by the dining implements than the dinner itself.
At least she never faced WALL-E‘s troubles trying to figure whether a spork belonged better in his fork collection or his spoon one. Speaking of the adorable love child of R2-D2 and Johnny Five, WALL-E appears to exist in a world where the likes of Remy’s nemesis Skinner have succeeded in reducing food to a nasty mass market sludge. At least they can dream of growing pizza plants, though.
While their princesses may be sat in front of a variety of not always brilliantly appealing feasts, Disney’s most famous dining scene is a literal dog’s dinner.
Maybe I’m just not a dog person, but the presence of a stray street mutt around the kitchen does far more to put me off the food than a whole host of rats. At least Remy and co. had the presence of mind to wash their hands! In fact, the main image this conjures up is of Fry’s dog swimming (and doing other things) in the pizza sauce in the tearjerking Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark”.
Across the Pacific, the recently retired Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し) places the audience viewpoint with the servants rather than feasting princes and princesses of Disney and has a distinctly more ambivalent view of the food.
Sure, there’s some pretty tasty looking stuff in the painstakingly detailed animated scenes, but the movie’s message about the disgusting nature of gluttonous over-consumption makes it seem quite a bit less appealing. After all, plucky heroine Chihiro is only in this position because her parents’ gluttony has turned them into literal pigs (although fellow cursed pig, the eponymous Bogart-esque protagonist in Miyazaki’s utterly charming Porco Rosso (紅の豚), seems less damned by this, especially given his incredibly patient love interest Gina runs an Italian restaurant-bar).
Away from hand drawn animation, anti-gluttony is also the take home moral of Sony Animation’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a film that’s almost the opposite of Ratatouille. Where the latter is a sophisticated and thoughtful film about fine art and the humble origins of great artists with the voices of great British actors, the former is an incredibly silly knockabout comedy of slapstick, puns and the voices of Mr. T and the erstwhile Doogie Howser, Neil Patrick Harris, as a monkey who mostly just says his own name. While Ratatouille is funny its ambitions extend well beyond that, Cloudy‘s don’t, which is possibly why it settles for being one of the most consistently laugh out loud hilarious films in years.
Its animation is a bit more rough and ready than Pixar’s stunning take on a Parisien restaurant, but it’s obvious that they spent more time on the food than anything else. Although it’s mostly junk food, a lot of it still looks pretty good. At least at first it does, once you get in a fist fight with a roast chicken it doesn’t seem quite so much a candidate for Sunday dinner.
While we’re on the subject of a proper roast dinner, one movie that goes all out to present a perfect animated dining table that might just take the cartoon food biscuit is Coraline. Henry Selick’s movie of Neil Gaiman’s creepy kid’s classic uses stop motion to give its food an appealing physicality. In Gaiman’s novel young Coraline scorns her father’s desire to cook “recipes” rather than the ready to eat foods like Flint Lockwood’s rain in the last clip. The film steps this, and many other contrasts between the real and “other” worlds, up to a fridge empty but for some dubious sloppy vegetables. Meanwhile, Coraline’s button eyed “Other Mother” has quite the spread laid out.
If my gravy came in a literal gravy train I’d be tempted to trade my drab real life for one of button eyes and a soul eating mother creature. Having said that, it’s the very solidity of the stop motion food that also makes it slightly off putting (see also Hugh Grant and his ham loving pirate crew in an Adventure with Scientists or were-rabbit Wallace as he switches wensleydale for carrots). Notice how, like Belle, Coraline doesn’t ever get much opportunity to eat what’s put in front of her.
At the end of the day, then, animated characters get presented with a lot of food, hand drawn, computer drawn or physically hand made in tiny sizes, but there’s few that can really beat Ratatouille at showing us food that we might actually want to eat! I mean, I love Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but I’ll probably cook up another helping of Wednesday’s ratatouille long before having a go at building my own FLDSMDFR.