(Infinity and Beyond is a regular column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film.In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Ratatouille.)
Throughout their first decade of making feature films, Pixar Animation Studios had managed to find different ways to explore variations on a formula. “What if the human world, but with non-human characters?” That, boiled down, is the entire Pixar creative calculation from films such as Toy Story to Monsters, Inc. to Cars. There are other familiar storytelling elements which crop up as well, such as mismatched characters becoming best friends. But the consistency had paid off for Pixar through 2006. Pixar’s next three films, though, by intent or sheer coincidence, would become their most creatively bold and daring projects.
The first of them was perhaps most daring of all, because its premise was based on something inherently disgusting. What if a rat wanted to make your dinner?
Anyone Can Do It
The genesis for the film that would become Ratatouille began in the year 2000, with Jan Pinkava building out the premise, world, and characters for a story in which a rat was consumed by the desire to be a chef. Pinkava was, by 2000, best known as the director and writer of the Academy Award-winning animated short Geri’s Game. (For those of you who may not remember short names, that’s the one where the old man plays himself in a game of chess over his own false teeth.) Pinkava worked for a few years on Ratatouille, but Pixar, per the David Price book The Pixar Touch, was not terribly pleased with the state of the project. They brought Bob Peterson onto the development process, before shifting gears in 2005.
As we talked about here recently, The Incredibles was a smash hit for Disney and Pixar. It netted Pixar another Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, deservedly so, and must have been an awfully gratifying moment for Brad Bird, whose previous animated feature The Iron Giant had won critical plaudits and a cult fanbase but not mass appeal. Bird was, at that time, closer to an animation auteur, writing and directing his own stories. Yet Pixar was able to hook him into joining Ratatouille in 2005, largely thanks to the premise being so out-of-left-field, according to a set-visit interview from Ain’t It Cool News. Bird’s arrival on the project precipitated the departure of Pinkava, not only from the film but from Pixar in general.
With Bird at the helm, he went ahead and made revisions to the story, expanding some characters while making a key choice regarding the famed chef Auguste Gusteau, killing him off. What’s remarkable about Ratatouille now is that any sense of a rushed timeline – there were only a couple years between when Bird joined the project and when it was released in the summer of 2007 – is totally absent. Even more than with The Incredibles, Bird was able to introduce a commentary on the nature and profundity of art through his film, deepening and maturing the story that could have easily fallen apart.
A Figment of Your Imagination
Ratatouille, though it eschews entirely the notion of a non-human take on the human world, only somewhat indulges in the notion of mismatched characters becoming best friends over the course of a shared journey. Our lead character and narrator is Remy, voiced masterfully by comedian Patton Oswalt. Remy is a rat living in the French countryside who’s been blessed (or cursed, depending how you look at it) with a refined palate. Though his many brothers and sisters, and his father (Brian Dennehy), would be more than happy to scour through garbage to eat whatever they can find, Remy knows the value of pairing cheese with a mushroom, or of blending the right fruit and the right cheese together with just the right amount of a chew.
Remy’s idol is the aforementioned Gusteau (Brad Garrett), a chef with a fancy Parisian restaurant who’s also something of a Julia Child figure. He appears on TV, espousing his motto that “anyone can cook”. This inspires Remy, because he comes from the unlikeliest of homes and backgrounds. If Gusteau is right, Remy wagers, then there must be a path for someone like him to achieve his dream. After Remy’s attempt to find the right ingredients for a meal go awry – the old lady whose house he and his fellow rats are hiding within gets a bit shotgun-happy when she sees a rat – he’s separate from his family and winds up in the middle of Paris.
Ratatouille offers a lot of visually exhilarating moments, but few are more satisfying than the setpiece in which Remy ascends through a series of apartments to realize that he’s in a building directly facing the Eiffel Tower. Like The Incredibles, Brad Bird features lots of humans in this film – there’s a plethora of rats, of course, but they all live within a distinctly familiar version of the real world. But the animation in Ratatouille feels, like Cars did the year before, like a major technological leap forward for Pixar. The rats in the film are mercifully not photorealistic – outside of a brief glimpse or two of the human interpretation of rats, they’re more cartoon-y than anything else. Yet the representation of Paris, and specifically the kitchen at Gusteau’s, has the texture and detailed quality of photorealism without slipping into the uncanny valley.
A Surplus of Snobbery
The animation could be less groundbreaking here, because the story is challenging and mature enough. The conflict is set before the opening titles even appear on screen. We see that Gusteau’s motto is dismissed by the food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), also known as “The Grim Eater”. Film critics, long an easy source of abuse by filmmakers, might have sat up straighter in their seats at this point – was Pixar going to use a critic as an easy bad guy in this story? It would’ve been baffling, largely because both Brad Bird and Pixar as a whole were not known as critical pincushions. Critics had championed both the filmmaker and the studio, separately and together. Would they become an antagonistic target in this new film?
There’s a good deal of evidence to make it look that way – O’Toole, in a richly textured voice performance, oozes menace as a character who takes his visual inspiration from Christopher Lee. Ego, whose name is…well, just look at it, has an office shaped like a coffin. And his snobbery seems so intense that nothing can quell it – at one point, he icily states, “If I don’t like it, I don’t swallow”. Ego’s presence is just one of a number of aspects that get touched upon in Bird’s take on the story. The commentary within the film extends to the notion of commercialization, represented by the new taskmaster at Gusteau’s, Chef Skinner (Ian Holm). Skinner’s not without talent, but he also wants to cash in on Gusteau’s prestige, trying to unleash a line of frozen foods that treat the late chef like, as Ego references, Chef Boyardee.
And the largest question of all: what does it mean to be an artist? When you watch the film in 2020, the most striking part of Ratatouille is that Remy the rat is a) not always likable, and b) allowed to be not always likable. The film is at its wackiest and most cartoonish when we get an idea of how Remy can live out his dream in a Parisian kitchen with almost no one being wiser to it. He hides on top of the head of the well-meaning doofus Alfredo Linguine (Lou Romano, a Pixar animator), who turns out to be Gusteau’s long-lost son to boot, and manipulates the young man’s arms by pulling on hanks of his hair. Remy is clearly talented where Linguine isn’t – a fine bit of visual humor comes in Remy’s begrudging shrug to the question of whether or not Linguine has any skill – but he’s also convinced that he’s the only one with any talent.
Not Anyone Should
“Your opinion isn’t the only one that matters here!” This is how Linguine upbraids Remy in a key argument. It’s a telling moment, one that serves as an emotional sibling to the argument between Bob Parr and Helen Parr in The Incredibles that begins as a referendum on Bob’s sneaking around at night and turns into him expressing his frustration about how the truly special and gifted individuals in life are forced to sublimate those talents. Here, we get another similar moment to Bob choosing between his family and his gifts. When Remy has a final heart-to-heart with his father Django, he says “I can’t choose between two halves of myself.”
Even when he’s not talking up a storm (Remy having to work with Linguine as literally as possible ensures that our lead character isn’t the chattiest hero), Remy is a far pricklier protagonist than most Pixar good guys. He goes alongside the neurotic Sheriff Woody, though he’s arguably a moodier character in part because he so often alienates those around him. While Ratatouille doesn’t automatically forgive Remy for this behavior, there’s a clear implication that Remy’s brooding and frustration at being hemmed in by the history of how humans and rats fail to coexist is meant as a logical reaction, and not something he needs to change.
Ratatouille, thus, is the story of how an artist’s greatness is realized. There’s a distinctly similar quality between this film and The Incredibles when you boil it down that far. One is about a hero from humble origins whose innate talent is eventually undeniable to even the fiercest of critics, and one is about how a superhero and his family are able to save the world and validate the necessity of heroes in a world of doubters. But there are distinctly recognizable elements to each film, reflecting Bird’s desire to have the truly special in the real world be championed instead of pushed down. It’s perhaps a less Randian film than The Incredibles, but Ratatouille does squarely aim to champion the special over the ordinary.
A Peasant Dish
All of the plot strands culminate in what may be the most perfect climax in Pixar’s filmography. Remy makes good with his family, who helps defeat the nefarious Skinner, while Colette has temporarily forgiven Linguine for allying himself with a rat. Remy and the rest of his rat family, along with Colette and Linguine, aim to serve a full house of customers, including Anton Ego. Remy decides that for the feared critic, he’ll make something Colette dubs “a peasant dish”: ratatouille. With Michael Giacchino’s score building to a crescendo, we see a roller-skating Linguine hand off the eponymous dish to Ego (and an incognito Skinner, who hopes to see Remy and Linguine decimated by the critic).
One of the challenges of a film about food, whether it’s live-action or animation, is depicting the sensation of eating something that tastes good. How can we know aside from watching a well-animated face express visual enjoyment that the food on screen is as good as it may look? Though there are earlier scenes where Remy’s own enjoyment of food is presented via colorful blobs and jazzy music, when Ego eats the ratatouille, we understand instantly how good the dish is because he flashes back to his own childhood, where his mother would tend to his physical or emotional wounds by giving him ratatouille as a comfort dish. The transportive effect leads to Ego wanting to thank the chef in person…which leads to him learning who the chef really is.
The resulting review of Gusteau’s restaurant represents, among other things, the most emotional moment in Ratatouille as well as one of the finest moments of Peter O’Toole’s career. The way his monologue speaks to the necessity of critics as well as what their full place in cultural society may be manages to walk a fine line between acknowledging the pitfalls of criticism while embracing its value. “The discovery and defense of the new”, as Ego puts it, is what makes criticism so vital. Ratatouille is a fantasy, yes, but even within that fantasy, there’s reality sneaking around the corner. When Linguine comes clean to the rest of the denizens of Gusteau’s kitchen, they all walk out, even Colette. (She eventually changes her mind, but no one else does.) And when Ego’s review is published, it gives Remy a huge triumph…but the restaurant is swiftly closed, and Ego loses his job.
There’s a happy ending, of course – Remy is telling the story of the film to fellow rats from the top of his new restaurant, La Ratatouille. But Bird isn’t entirely unwilling to acknowledge the hard reality of the very premise of a film about a rat in the world of haute cuisine.
The Finest Chef in France
Ratatouille is not the swiftest Pixar film, nor does it boast an instantly memorable ensemble of lovable characters. But it just might be Pixar’s best, and thus Brad Bird’s best film, balancing fast-paced action with slapstick comedy, genuine emotion, and a level of intelligence that isn’t easy to find in most mainstream animated films. At this point in the series, I’l say this: I don’t know that Pixar has matched the creative heights this film achieves since the summer of 2007. WALL-E and Up, our next two titles, are also excellent films, and daring in their own way. They’re both very, very funny. They both burst at the seams with emotion. They’re both almost as complex as Ratatouille. Almost.
Ratatouille was not the biggest Pixar success out of the gate. Though critics embraced it wholeheartedly, its box-office take domestically wound up only barely crossing the $200 million mark. (For context, this was Pixar’s lowest-grossing film in the United States since A Bug’s Life.) Yet the film did stick around in the cultural consciousness, and was well-liked enough by critics and the industry to get a handful of Oscar nominations, winning for Best Animated Feature. Ratatouille also did what The Incredibles had done three years earlier, getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Jan Pinkava, despite not being involved with the final product, was nominated along with Bird and Jim Capobianco. And yet sadly, Ratatouille followed in line with every other Pixar film to deservedly get an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay: it lost to something else. (In 2007, the Oscar went to Juno, an of-the-moment pick that may have made some sense 13 years ago. Now, it feels awfully short-sighted. Honest to blog.)
Ratatouille served as a fine capper to the careers of two of its best actors. O’Toole and Holm, both incredible British actors in their twilight years, appeared in a couple titles afterwards, but this marked their last truly brilliant work. (Holm only ever appeared in the Hobbit movies after this film.) For Brad Bird, Ratatouille only further proved that he ranked among the most intelligent auteurist filmmakers of his generation, no matter the medium. He would return to Pixar more than a decade later, but…well, we’ll get there eventually. For now, upon once again rewatching Ratatouille, it’s best to echo the sentiment evinced by A.O. Scott of The New York Times in his rapturous review of the film, and thank Bird for this treatise on the artist coming of age.
Next Time: Let’s go to the future on a deserted Earth.
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