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Forget Ratatouille, here's Ratatoing! The rise and rise of the 'mockbuster'

Amelia Tait
·10-min read

It is hard to describe what happens 24 minutes into Ratatoing, an animated children’s movie from 2007. Four unnerving rats – one with a handlebar moustache, another in pearls – begin to jump up and down and grunt in a restaurant, in order to alarm the human clientele. “La, la, la, la, la,” they sort of sing while sort of dancing. They then do the can-can and shout “HA, HA, HA!” before making ghostly noises. Ratatoing is not, it is safe to say, a good movie. It is barely even an acceptable movie. It was created in just four months by Brazilian animation studio Vídeo Brinquedo, to be released in the same month as Ratatouille, the restaurant-and-rat-themed film that went on to win Pixar the Oscar for best animated feature.

“I don’t have regrets but I’m not proud of it,” says Ale McHaddo, one of Ratatoing’s producers. He says Vídeo Brinquedo had a budget of just £75,000 to script, cast, animate and score each movie he worked on. These included The Little Cars (released the same year as Pixar’s Cars) and Little Bee (released two years after DreamWorks’ Bee Movie). Ratatouille’s budget, by comparison, was £112m. “I was young and needed to produce some films,” says the 37-year-old from São Paulo. “I thought, ‘I have plenty of ideas – but OK, I need to pay my bills.’”

I don’t have regrets but I’m not proud of it. I needed to pay my bills

The movies McHaddo helped to create are “mockbusters” – films that ride on the coat-tails of blockbusters. The first ones emerged in the 1950s, but the 1990s and early 2000s saw a rush of poorly-animated Disney and Pixar imitators that are now finding a second life online. A comedy YouTube video from June 2019, dissecting and mocking clips from Ratatoing, has now clocked up more than 8 million views. “It’s a rat!” bemoans YouTuber Danny Gonzalez. “You don’t need to give the rat a sexy saunter!” Another video – marvelling at the abundance of shoddy Kung Fu Panda imitators, such as Chop Kick Panda – attracted an audience of 1.4 million.

These mockbusters are not about to disappear. Last year, LA production company The Asylum released Homeward, an animated film about mythical creatures, magic and brothers, a couple of weeks before Pixar released Onward, an animated film about mythical creatures, magic and brothers. Speaking to the New York Times in 2007, founder David Latt likened his movies to “tie-ins”, saying: “I’m not trying to dupe anybody. I’m just trying to get my films watched.”

Still, mockbusters raise a lot of questions. How are they made? Why don’t massive studios sue them? And how do the people behind them feel about their work? Vitor Brandt and Daniel Turini wrote the script for Vídeo Brinquedo’s Little & Big Monsters, inspired by DreamWorks’ Monsters vs Aliens. It took them just three days. The resulting film, which follows wacky scientists on monster-hunting adventures, scores 1.1 stars out of 10 on IMDb. “There is no redeeming quality to this movie,” wrote one reviewer.

“They didn’t care much about the quality of the script,” says 38-year-old Brandt of his bosses. The only information he had to work off was a Monsters vs Aliens poster, as DreamWorks hadn’t yet broadcast any trailers. And rushing meant mistakes made it into the final cut. “There was a character named Fred,” says Brandt, “which in Brazil is short for Frederico. At the last minute, they decided to rename him Guto. They searched for ‘Fred’ in the script and did a ‘replace all’ with Guto. But there was a line in which ‘Fred’ was called ‘Frederico’ by his angry uncle. The replace changed it to ‘Gutoerico’, which makes no sense at all.”

Turini, 40, says he was told to write more dialogue than action, avoiding scenes where characters ran because those were harder to animate. But, he adds, because the films were often based on concepts of as-yet-unreleased movies, there wasn’t actually much copying. “It was fun to do something completely free.” The sequel to Little & Big Monsters, which neither Brandt nor Turini worked on, is called What’s Up and is about the same scientists floating in a house attached to a giant balloon. No prizes for guessing what that was inspired by.

Not much to go on … the Monsters vs Aliens poster.
Not much to go on … the Monsters vs Aliens poster. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

How do mockbuster studios avoid being sued by giants? Larry Zerner, an LA-based copyright lawyer, explains that many early mockbusters were based on public domain stories such as Aladdin, meaning “anybody can do it and nobody can really complain”. Disney lost a 1993 lawsuit against GoodTimes, a company that released its own animated Aladdin. He also notes that under US trademark law, a film’s title is not protectable until the film becomes a series. “So where you can have protection for Harry Potter or Star Wars, anyone can make a movie called Titanic.”

But what about films that copy concepts, such as dancing penguins and pandas that are good at taekwondo? “The test is: are the two works substantially similar? You have to have a good chunk. Just a house with balloons? Not enough.” Overall, Zerner characterises mockbusters as “mosquitoes on the side of the elephant”. It often isn’t worth it for, say, Disney to sue a small company and give it publicity. Zerner imagines mockbusters will be around for a while: “There are people who want to make quality movies – and there are people just trying to make a buck.”

Vídeo Brinquedo is now defunct, but I managed to track down Marco Botana, who joined the company in the late 90s as a product director. “At the end,” he told me by email, “as a lot of studios usually do, we just produced what was trending in animation and entertainment through the world.” He describes Vídeo Brinquedo films as “animations based on character tendencies, such as bears who fight, bees with identity crisis, rats who cook”.

Botana said the company never tried to trick consumers, nor did it receive any complaints. He points out that The Little Cars sold more than a million copies in a single month in Brazil before being dubbed for international audiences and selling 5,000 copies in a week in Walmart. “We always wanted to produce entertainment at accessible cost. We also wanted to offer job opportunities to a lot of animators in Brazil, where there wasn’t an animation industry. Throughout the history of the company, we have always given a lot of job opportunities, paid taxes and got children happy.”

One Car's Life animator got $4 per second of film. Normal rates reach $2,500. 'I didn't waste time polishing a turd'

Practically all of The Little Cars takes place on one strip of pixelated asphalt. And it was not the only imitator released in 2006, the year Pixar’s Cars came out. There was also A Car’s Life: Sparky’s Big Adventure, made by New York company Spark Plug Entertainment and boasting a look similar to that of 1990s PC games. “I was told going in that this wouldn’t be super-polished,” says an animator who worked on Car’s Life 2 and 3. The animator, who we’ll call Harry, was a recent graduate and took the job for experience. He worked remotely for four months on each and had no contact with any of the other animators. A fellow worker, who we’ll call John, says he was paid $4 per second of animation. Normal rates go from $150 to $2,500. “I honestly put very little effort into it,” says John. “I didn’t bother wasting my time polishing a turd.”

Harry later worked on another mockbuster for a different company. “I would say the standard was lower,” he says. “They seemed to care less about detail.” While working for Spark Plug, Harry would animate entire scenes, but here he was given specific shots. This meant that when each animator’s shots were tied together in to a scene, there would be continuity errors with lighting and locations. “I discussed it with my supervisor,” says Harry, “but he said that’s the way the director wanted it. I would say this for Spark Plug – yeah, it was making mockbusters, but the director cared about making the movie as good as he could within the budget he had.” Spark Plug Entertainment appears to be defunct and could not be reached for comment.

Harry “felt uneasy” making mockbusters but distinguishes between films that were “piggybacking” off popular concepts and ones that deliberately tried to mislead consumers. He also believes these jobs were an economic necessity at a time when many studios were laying off staff. Turini, the Vídeo Brinquedo scriptwriter, says mockbusters were often the only way for creatives to get their foot in the door, and provided a cheaper alternative for poorer consumers in Brazil. He points out that nobody asks mainstream movie-makers if they feel guilty about their jobs, even though many “suppress diversity” and “fill all the theatres with the same movie, with the same point of view, produced by the same countries”.

Darrell Van Citters is an animator who worked on such Disney classics as The Fox and the Hound before forming his own studio in 1992. In 2011, Van Citters produced the mockbusters Chop Kick Panda, Tappy Toes and Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail for fitness brand Gaiam. The company had existing infrastructure to distribute exercise videos, so branched into mockbusters. It did not respond to a request for comment.

“This was during the depths of the recession when nothing was coming in,” 64-year-old Van Clitters says. “I had a couple of people message me on Facebook telling me I should be ashamed of myself, but I’m never ashamed to provide for my family.” Compared to most mockbusters, Van Citters’ films have high-quality animation, though he faced budget restraints. Of Chop Kick Panda, he says: “You’ll notice, when the fighting starts, the kid hides his eyes and says, ‘I can’t look.’ And neither did we.”

Van Citters’ studio now works on The Tom and Jerry Show, and he’s not the only mockbuster creator to have gone on to experience mainstream success. Vídeo Brinquedo writer Brandt won an International Emmy Kids Award for his TV show Young Hearts: Embrace Diversity, while producer McHaddo has created a show broadcast by Nickelodeon. Product director Botana now creates online educational videos for children.

The world’s most infamous mockbusters were made by German studio Dingo Pictures in the 1990s. No one from the company responded to requests for an interview, though its website is still live. The childish animation and poor quality control – in some dubs, actors accidentally read their stage directions – mean the movies have become heavily memed, taking on new lives decades after they were made.

Related: One-star wonders: how to make a film that’s so bad it’s good

“I find it amusing that there are so many reviews on the internet about these movies,” says Turini. “They do 35-minute videos about a 45-minute animation, showing almost all of the movie, to say at the end that they don’t recommend it. In a way, they are monetising the mockbuster just like the mockbuster tried to monetise the blockbuster.”

For producer McHaddo, renewed interest in Vídeo Brinquedo is both funny and troubling. At a recent film festival, it pained him when an audience member asked him about Ratatoing. “I needed that expertise to evolve,” he says, “to learn how to work with a team and a low budget. So it was important.” Was he ever happy with the finished movies? “No,” he says with a laugh. “Never, never, never, never.”