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Like a great dish, the pleasures of Ratatouille are layered. The first taste offers a charming film about a rat who becomes the finest chef in France with the help of his kitchen-hand friend, who is named after a pasta. It melts in your mouth, at once sweet and tender, a little cheeky but not at all bitter. As you cut deeper, hidden flavours begin to surface. Far from just being a silly movie for children, it is an ode to the outsider: Rémy, the rat who longs to cook in a Paris kitchen but faces discrimination from both his own kind and humans for wanting to follow his dreams. Linguini, the illegitimate son of a great chef. Colette, the only woman in a male-dominated kitchen. Anton Ego, the critic who yearns to rediscover the taste of his childhood and a love long gone. Swill it around with the accompaniments, and we unearth an ongoing subversive streak from The Incredibles, reaffirming its belief that not everyone can be special, even if special things can come from anyone.
Ratatouille is a heartfelt paean not just to the pleasures of fine food, but to the act of creation and the people who support it. Unlike the reprehensible Wall-E, which concealed its cynical intent beneath market-tested populism, this film, though it may have a clear recipe driving its success, is not afraid to take a risk to stand by what it believes in. Is it flawless? No. Does that matter? Not in the least.
Despite the many textures and flavours on offer, the film is digested with the lightness of a fine soufflé. Beyond the first act, there is little sense of danger or tension. The rules of writing normally state that the peril should escalate as the film progresses, but that assumes the character’s life is what is at stake. Here, that initial burst of action establishes the world which Rémy needs to escape from, where he survives by having to keep his wits about him in scavenging for food that insults his highly developed senses.
Once he arrives in Paris, his life is no longer the primary concern. The city offers him something greater than simple survival, an opportunity to experience the fullness of life through achieving his dreams of becoming a chef. Should he die before then, it is of little importance: it is the fulfilment of his ambition which defines the value of his existence once he is given the chance to make it happen. Of course, there are chase scenes and other such set-pieces, but their function is primarily comedic and secondarily for emphasizing the obstacles Rémy must overcome on his path to greatness. The real suspense comes in the moments when waiting for the verdict on a new dish, or whether his fellow chefs will continue to work alongside him once he reveals his true self.
Naturally, the film looks wonderful: every inch of Paris is painted in soft colours that do not so much coexist as flow in and out of one another. Cerulean blue skies blush with the golden kiss of the city lights, while the pink neon sign buzzing above Gusteau’s restaurant gives a naughty wink from amidst the angelic romanticism, luring patrons to taste spicier treats. From below, Rémy’s rodent-eye view captures a sense of grandeur and awe, allowing us to look into the nooks and crannies that reveal the foundations beneath that majestic exterior. Even the sewers and skirting boards have their own distinct flavours, giving the city both a literal and figurative depth. Like Rémy’s celebrated dishes, the city is made up of countless ingredients, which melt into one when tasted as a single delicacy, but all bringing something indispensable in their individual right.
But no matter how layered, a masterpiece is not just in appearance. It is also built on the perfection of the pieces which make it up, each requiring as much care on their own as the presentation as a whole. In Rémy, we have a protagonist who we do not just understand better through the story, but whose nature allows us to gain more understanding of the narrative’s themes and nuances. He is as charming and silly as he needs to be to lead a children’s film, but also reflects the persevering spirit which characterises the values at the heart of the experience. For those who want him to just be a funny rat scurrying around a kitchen of frantic Frenchmen, that’s exactly what he is. But he’s also the voice that calls for us to not be satisfied with surviving everyday struggles, but to fight back and aim for something greater. His efforts are not purely for himself, but also to show his loved ones that they too can aspire to a better life. In Ratatouille‘s world, our individualism is what keeps us striving to make the best of ourselves, but understands that we ultimately are nothing without being part of a community. Family builds the dish. The individuals give it its flavour.
A good antagonist should mirror a story’s hero, which is why Anton Ego, the world-weary restaurant critic whose review literally killed Rémy’s revered chef Gusteau, is the most compelling of the human characters. That is not to say that Linguini or Colette do not have anything to offer – their stories have much to say about outsiders overcoming adversity and individuals becoming stronger through a shared love for their art and each other – but they reinforce what we already see through Rémy. Ego is Ratatouille‘s dark side, a passion turned to cynicism rather than the hope embodied by Rémy.
In the film’s most beautiful moment, which lasts under thirty seconds but lives so much longer in the heart, Linguini presents Ego with the dish which could make or break the restaurant. The critic clicks his pen in anticipation of the verdict, then takes a bite of Rémy’s ratatouille. As the taste fills his mouth, it takes him back to the childhood memory where his love of food began, which inspired him to want to tell the world about the wonders of the culinary world, rather than cut down those who could not satisfy his desires, as because his habit in adult life. Though appearing to be merely a pun on the species of the main character and his love of food, the film is named after its signature dish because its appearance marks the moment when every ingredient in the story comes together in one perfect taste.
Ego’s review, serving as summation of what should be taken away from a night out with Ratatouille, is as much about an audience’s position as a critic’s. (Having the character’s name be ‘Ego’ is no coincidence). How often do we go for the easy option, a big blockbuster, rather than making the effort and taking a risk on going to see a smaller work instead, one more personal to the people who made it and which needs our support far more than the Hollywood movies we go to instead?
Some have suggested that Pixar were being high and mighty, suggesting that Ego’s speech is really serving to elevate their work as of greater worth than ‘the average piece of junk’. I don’t believe this to be the case – for one thing, given the laudatory reviews which greet their every new release, I don’t think Pixar could ever argue that they lack support among audiences or critics. Instead, I think it is the writers making the most of their privileged position, both as filmmakers and film lovers, to remind us to take a chance every now and again and to support the little guy. It is not a plea to gain more support than Pixar already receives, but that the support be shared between that which we know and love, and that which has not yet been discovered. Ego is both us, in our ability to go out of our way to support new creations, and the filmmakers, who use his voice to speak directly to us.
If I disagree with one thing that Ego says, it’s that as a critic, I have never enjoyed writing bad reviews. Whatever fun it’s possible to have in kicking some rancid piece of junk back to the heap, those feelings are based in negativity and thus ultimately hollow. That short burst of spite might be temporarily exciting, but never salves the bad experience it was based on. As he says, it rarely even makes a difference to the movie’s success or failure. The pleasure of being able to write about something wonderful, on the other hand, is in having the opportunity to revisit those experiences, perhaps passing a taste onto someone else and encourage them to take a chance for themselves. Revisiting a dish as wonderful as Ratatouille is indeed a treat worth savouring.
Sam Membrino: 9.10 – Supreme. Ratatouille is one of my favorite Pixar films and one of my favorite animated films of all time. It’s almost never mentioned in the Pixar Top Whatever list, which usually holds spaces for The Incredibles, Up, and any number of the Toy Story films. To me, however, it’s more a film for adults than children, and as resident food writer here at Flixist, appeals to me in a variety of ways. Remy’s cooking, and the way in which he discovers his culinary artistry, is the stuff dreams are (literally) made of. The delicate beauty of Paris, the culinary passion of its inhabitants, and the exquisite attention to detail are all present, and the supporting cast of characters are nothing short of remarkable. Of all the Pixar films, this one holds, to me, the most “rewatchability”. Perhaps I expect that each time I enter the kitchen at Gusteau’s there will (for some magical reason) be different dishes for me to wonder at. The film even inspired me to work at a French restaurant. Spoiler alert: it’s much hotter, more dangerous, and infinitely more tiring than in the movie. The money’s no good either. And although there was an attractive female chef that could cook me under the table (Carolina, call me some time), I never got a smooch.
Glenn Morris: 6.35 – Okay: Ratatouille popped up on the radar of a lot of adults because it reached a new milestone of near-tangible quality in its CG animation. While I didn’t appreciate that on the same level as others, having been influenced by the hype, I remember how I felt when I first encountered A Bug’s Life on a Best Buy laptop display and assume the same experience. In terms of the narrative presentation, it has very brief moments of true brilliance in both comedy and drama, but this proof of artistry is like tasty cheese within the trappings of the sensibility of a seven year old. Extended chase sequences, a three foot tall overweight antagonist shaking his cheeks side to side before straightening posture and pointing to the sky, a too-beautiful foodie warming up to the crippling awkwardness of our human hero far too easily to have happened within a barely existing side story (because girls are icky). None of it would be grating if there wasn’t a far better film visibly existing alongside the nonsense. Ratatouille is two different ambitions fighting for supremacy, where the less admirable wins out.