Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!
Children’s movies rarely stay in childhood; an early, emotional connection with a story can endure for the rest of our lives. The Walt Disney Company has capitalized on these connections by turning acquisitions like Marvel and Star Wars into sprawling hit factories. Pixar, another subsidiary, is not a similarly cohesive mega-franchise. (Though with Lightyear, a tangential spinoff of Toy Story, that may soon change.) Still, Pixar films may best exemplify the power of stories for children to reverberate throughout culture—even the kind made by and for adults.
Take Ratatouille, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. The 2007 Brad Bird film filters common coming-of-age themes through a wondrously specific lens. Like many stories, its hero is a young dreamer who journeys far from home and overcomes prejudice through hard work and radical kindness. Unlike many stories, that hero is a rat who sets his sights on the world of high-end French gastronomy—and breaks into it by operating an enterprising young garbage boy like a marionette. In Pixar movies, the laws of physics are flexible, but the emotional logic is always airtight.
Ratatouille was a major hit at the time; in its adolescence, however, the film’s impact has only grown. The kids who caught the film in theaters or watched it on repeat at home are now old enough to dream up artworks that reflect their formative influences. In 2020, creators on TikTok staged a full original musical inspired by Auguste Gusteau’s mantra that “anyone can cook.” (The motto applies equally to staging a musical, especially under lockdown.) Elsewhere on the app, thousands of cooking videos are set to Camille’s “Le Festin,” the soundtrack excerpt that’s now aural shorthand for preparing an elaborate-yet-rustic meal. And in mainstream entertainment, the great indie-film success story of 2022 contains an extended homage to Ratatouille, itself a story about the virtues of creativity within material constraints.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, the second feature film by the duo professionally known as the Daniels, centers on a Chinese American laundromat owner named Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) swept up in an interdimensional tug-of-war. The movie’s multiverse concept is head-spinning in its scope, stretching from an IRS regional office to an A-list film premiere to a world where humans have hot dogs for fingers. But Everything Everywhere is also an intimate story about a family burdened by generational and romantic tension, an artful fusion exemplified by how the script incorporates Ratatouille. It’s classic family entertainment, referenced and refashioned into a more mature take on parents and children.
Early in the film, Evelyn mistakenly refers to the movie as “Raccacoonie” while arguing with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). At first, it’s just a comic slip-up, lightening an otherwise heavy dynamic in which a well-meaning mother tries to force her child back into the closet for fear of upsetting her own disapproving parent. Later, one of the alternate realities Evelyn visits is a Benihana-style teppanyaki joint, where she quickly notices something amiss with a fellow chef named Chad (Harry Shum Jr.), who has a mysterious fur tail sticking out of his toque. In this world, she quickly deduces, Raccacoonie is real, and sounds suspiciously like songwriting legend—and prominent Pixar talent—Randy Newman. But instead of chasing Michelin stars in the City of Lights, he’s flipping piles of fried rice for delighted crowds of diners.
“The initial response was like, ‘What the fuck?’” says Shum of his first take on the script, which called for his character to balance a toddler-sized creature on his head whilst slicing and dicing. “And, ‘Yes, please.’”
The genesis of the Raccacoonie bit is more than just a silly pun. (Over the course of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie, the concept goes from sight gag to full-on subplot, with Evelyn helping Chad rescue his furry friend from animal control.) While writing the screenplay, the Daniels were inspired by an anecdote from Everything Everywhere producer Jonathan Wang, whose father had a habit of mixing up the titles of popular movies. Sherlock Holmes became Shooky Shylock; Good Will Hunting became Outside Good People Shooting. The Daniels quickly realized the potential of giving Evelyn the same trait.
“The idea that whatever she got wrong was real was a very exciting way to explore the multiverse,” Daniel Scheinert told Vulture in April. “That’s always when we know a joke is going to be worth pursuing—when first the idea is so ridiculous that we can’t stop thinking about it,” added Scheinert’s filmmaking partner, Daniel Kwan.
Pop culture trivia getting lost in translation isn’t unique to immigrant parents and their first-generation children. (SNL once made an entire mock-commercial for a “Mom Celebrity Translator” that converts malapropisms like “Joe Geronimo” back to “Jake Gyllenhaal.”) The phenomenon is still an evocative shorthand for the many barriers, big and small, between Evelyn and Joy. In our universe, Evelyn can’t understand Joy’s sexuality, depression, or even childhood touchstones; in the original “alpha” reality, Joy’s alienation has turned her into a nihilistic supervillain who wants to end life as we know it.
Shum, who was born to Chinese Costa Rican parents and grew up in a trilingual household, says the Raccacoonie idea hit close to home. “It wasn’t just a gag that’s like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we did this?’” he explains. “It literally came from reality.” For makeup and effects supervisor Jason Hamer, who was tasked with bringing the miniature master chef to life, his gut response was more practical. “The first thing is, how the hell are we going to do this?” Hamer recalls, laughing.
A father of three, Hamer was already intimately familiar with Pixar’s repertoire, Ratatouille included. But there’s a difference between knowing one’s animated inspiration and turning it into live action. “You’ve got to think about the challenges of, you’ve got an actor and we’ve got to mount it to his head. Are we going to do puppet arms?” he asks. “Are we going to make it animatronic?”
Hamer also had to balance the raccoon’s functionality with a counterintuitive mandate from the Daniels. “The guys were like, ‘Think cheap. We don’t want it to look good. It should look goofy, like a bad taxidermy.’” For a craftsman who takes pride in his work, staying intentionally sloppy was a tough note to take, if in line with the scrappy, lo-fi aesthetic the Daniels imported from their work in music videos. “That was one of the challenges,” Hamer admits. “The guys [were] going, ‘Cheap and quick and dirty.’ And I’m going, ‘No. Cool and beautiful and funny!’”
Hamer ultimately went the animatronic route, using an actual taxidermied raccoon as a skeleton for both internal machinery and external prosthetics. For the inside, Hamer didn’t hold back, creating a fully functioning, eerily lifelike faux-animal. For the outside, though, he followed the Daniels’ suggestion to give Raccacoonie a distinctly homemade touch. “It’s going not as far as you would like to go, is basically what it is,” Hamer explains. “It’s taking less time to blend the hair, or painting on the fur.”
The team also found that simplicity worked best when it came to execution. Initially, the effects crew fashioned a skull cap to help Shum shoulder the burden of a 15-pound robot raccoon, which would then be covered up by a wig. Eventually they pivoted, fashioning a backpack with a supporting post to help redistribute the weight. The crew even added hair extensions to replicate Remy tugging on Alfredo Linguini’s curls to control his movements.
Shum is a dancer by training, which helped him rise to the physical task of carrying the raccoon while staging elaborate choreography. He appreciated the use of practical effects, from eschewing CGI for Raccacoonie to using Hong Kong–style wires to stage certain fight scenes—though for his own performance, Shum had to undergo a Ratatouille-style crash course of his own. “Chad being a hibachi chef—really, the hard part was actually learning how to do that,” Shum says. “I went and bought all the utensils and the cookware. Sitting there, literally having cuts on my fingers, just trying to make something in a short period of time.” Shum had about a week to look like a seasoned culinary professional, where the Ratatouille animators could simply create one out of whole cloth.
Raccacoonie is one of many threads that run through Everything Everywhere All at Once. True to the title, the film is a maximalist buffet, juxtaposing deafening chaos with quiet reflection, googly eyes and butt plugs with life-or-death stakes. The prolonged Ratatouille riff is a part that accurately reflects the multifaceted whole. Just as Everything Everywhere uses its idiosyncrasies to tell a universal story about family writ large, Raccacoonie draws on shared nostalgia with a fervent commitment to the bit. You don’t have to know Ratatouille to get the joke or enjoy the scenes, but the resonance between the two stories enhances their impact. “Pixar films, for me, it’s [about] being able to dream big and kind of finding what’s possible in the impossible,” Shum says. By gleefully bastardizing one of Pixar’s finest works, Everything Everywhere All at Once only amplifies its message.