Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Not the chosen one

Over the Christmas break I watched two animated films, Ratatouille and The Lego Movie. I loved both of them, they're happy, compassionate, well-animated and fundamentally sweet films. And I'm not sure if they're actually thematically connected or if I'm just doing superfluous pattern spotting because I happened to see them near eachother, but indulge me here?

It seems to me that both films are trying to subvert the traditional children's fantasy plot where the Chosen One is destined to save the world. I mean, The Lego Movie is explicitly about that, the Special finds the Piece of Resistance and spends the rest of the film discovering that the prophecy was made up, and he's just an ordinary guy who triumphs through the power of friendship and working together. Whereas it's not exactly the main theme of Ratatouille, the main plot is that Remy the rat strives to transcend his humble origins and become a chef. But it's very present, in that Linguini is secretly the illegitimate son of famous chef Gusteau. And yet he is not a great prince chef because of who his father was, in fact he's clumsy and a terrible cook, he's great because he's willing to look past appearances and collaborate with a rat.

Which is all very sweet, and a very nice moral for kids, the whole Everybody is Special motif in tLM and the corresponding Anyone Can Cook in Ratatouille. I was totally cheering for both Emmet in tLM and for Linguini (as well as Remy) in R. And I'm a complete sucker for plots where a disparate group of people have to work together and discover and combine their various strengths to win the day. Still, after I finished watching the films and had time to think about it a bit more, there are aspects I'm not entirely comfortable with. Because in some ways the whole "not the Chosen One" plot is more or less the myth of meritocracy, a more appealing myth than the aristocratic / greatness through noble birth one it aims to replace, but still a myth.

The thing is that both Linguini and Emmet are archetypal film protagonists, ie ordinary white guys whose "ordinariness" masks a lot of advantages that smooth their paths through life. (I don't think it's really arguable that in Lego terms, figs with yellow faces and generic facial expressions and hairstyles are coded as white males.) Linguini doesn't know he's the king's son, no, but he does have the kind of life where his mother networks on his behalf to get him a job opening even though he's clumsy and inept. And it's all very well him being brave and admitting that the credit for his success goes to his rat friend, but much of that success depends on him looking the part and his suddenly inheriting a business gives him a fairly significant advantage over most "ordinary" guys. Emmet is so ordinary it's made a kind of joke in the film, that his co-workers can't even really remember anything that stands out about him, etc. But he's the kind of ordinary who has a steady, skilled job, and who finds it congenial to fit precisely (again, so precisely it's a joke) into the narrow box that society has appointed for him.

Both Linguini and Emmet are also resolutely heterosexual, in that they have romance arcs with the only major female characters in their respective films. I liked both Wildstyle and Colette a lot, and I like that their dialogue explicitly mentions that women are under-represented in the kind of media their story is part of and that sexism means that they face obstacles to success in their chosen life paths of rebel master builder and chef. But I don't really like that they both fall in love with generic white guy protagonists who aren't really their equals. I mean, the message of the films is supposed to be that "anyone" can be a hero if they're in the right place at the right time and willing to be basically a decent chap. But the romance arcs kind of undermine that because they show you, right there on screen, women with immense talent who work and fight really really hard to build up their skills and achieve their goals, and end up as side-kicks and prizes for the entirely ordinary men who happen to fall into heroism.

In spite of that quibble, I did like the way that both films presented complex ideas of what it means to win. Being a chef requires natural talent and hard work and willingness to be single-minded about your goals and the ability to collaborate respectfully with others. And I liked the way that it was genuinely a sacrifice for Remy to leave his family and background and pursue his dreams, and indeed his final victory depended on his whole clan showing up to support him at a crucial moment. Which is a really sensitive take on the immigrant-boy-made-good narrative. And tLM has a genuinely subtle story about the balance between conformity and individualism, creativity and following the instructions. Also both films have great, catchy, lovely music and really visible love for their subjects, which is a delightful thing

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Tags: film

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