The most compelling reason to see Pixar’s latest animated feature, Ratatouille, is the short cartoon that precedes it. Not that Ratatouille, the story of a culinarily gifted French rat, lacks charm. But Lifted, the Pixar amuse-bouche that opens the show, is an even better example of animation’s greatest strength: the insightful representation of human emotion through nonhuman creatures.
This five-minute gem portrays the botched efforts of an alien abductor to get a sleeping Midwestern farmer into a flying saucer. The snoring farmer levitates in a beam of light projected into his bedroom from the spaceship hovering over his house, but then hits the wall rather than passing through the window. In the spacecraft, a small froglike creature sitting at an immense console of switches looks chagrined. His problems with mastering the art of abduction have just begun.
Lifted includes the genre’s usual, and pleasing, commedia dell’arte violence: we see the beam knocking the unconscious farmer about his bedroom and pulling him noisily through a large tree outside his window. Its greatest delights, however, are the facial expressions of the spaceship’s two wordless aliens. Accompanying the young abductor-in-training at the console is a corpulent green blob who silently regards his pupil with mounting contempt. The trainer’s tight-lipped, sidelong glances at his charge recall Jack Benny’s suffering at the world’s incompetence. Meanwhile, the would-be body-snatcher, whose overlarge helmet lists awkwardly back from his tiny forehead, grows desperate as his every effort to manipulate the sleeper into the spaceship ends in failure. Eventually, humiliated by the recalcitrant laws of extraterrestrial transport, he sweeps his arm in blind rage across the endless sea of incomprehensible switches.
The first amazing thing about this and other cartoons is that each of the thousands of gestures that convey human emotion must be deliberately drawn. A live actor may contract an eyebrow muscle to show skepticism without explicit instructions from a director, or without even realizing what he is doing. The insane deviousness of a cartoon coyote, by contrast, must be created at every moment out of nothing.
And the second amazing thing about cartoons is that the coyote’s director must understand the complex language of bodily expression so completely that he can reproduce it in animal snouts and irisless eyes. Cartoons belong in the tradition of fable and children’s stories, in which nonhuman creatures reflect our own traits back to us. Why do Kenneth Grahame’s and Ernest H. Shepard’s Rat and shameless Toad, A. A. Milne’s and Shepard’s Pooh and Piglet, and Beatrice Potter’s comforting Mrs. Rabbit so charm us? Perhaps because they combine the innocence of the animal world with the knowing wit of the human world.
American cartoons have taken the expression of extreme emotion beyond the work of the great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British children’s illustrators, whose creatures retained more of the limits of animal physiognomy than, say, Chuck Jones’s highly emotive protagonists did. And now Gary Rydstrom, the writer and director of Lifted, has given us an extraterrestrial spin on the joys of animation, creating a visual bonanza of human tribulation and comic anguish through silent but highly communicative green space invaders.