Ratatouille (2007)

Dir. Brad Bird. Starring Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofolo

Up until 2007, here’s how Pixar movies had ended:

Toy Story – Woody and Buzz chase down a moving truck on an RC car, fall with style into a minivan, and then have their first Christmas together

A Bug’s Life – After the gruesome death of Hopper in the rain, the circus bugs leave Ant Island

Toy Story 2 – Woody and Jessie escape a plane takeoff and Andy returns to “new toys”

Monsters, Inc. – Mr. Waternoose, after a dramatic and accidental confession, is taken away, and Sully opens the door to Boo’s room

Finding Nemo – Nemo nearly dies thanks to commercial fishing; Nemo and Marlin bring Dory home with them

The Incredibles – The Parrs come home, rescue the baby from Syndrome, who explodes (along with their house), and go to Dash’s track meet

Cars – An explosive NASCAR-style race, followed by a business statement

And here’s how Ratatouille begins to wind itself down, with these words and soft music over a montage of the film’s major characters:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extra-ordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

The film’s final scene shows that Remy (Oswalt) is regaling some guests with the tale of how he got into cooking and how La Ratatouille was founded, as well as how Ego (Peter O’Toole) is the primary investor in the business. There’s a bunch of movement in the dinner rush scene which sends Ego his life-changing ratatouille, though none of that is on the same level as a car race or a plane during takeoff or a wild chase through a factory. And while other Pixar movies up to that moment had been willing to end on a more contemplative note (Monsters, Inc. stands out here), none of them wind themselves down from such a comparative low point of action. Ratatouille makes a triumph out of this closing montage. In that way it’s reminiscent of how the triumphs in Up, in Toy Story 3, in Inside Out are similarly quiet; Ratatouille is an underreported pivot to Pixar’s most fruitful stretch of films, giving us characters who even in moments of great need are never really action heroes and whose resolutions require fewer flashes and bangs.

Ratatouille more or less predates foodie culture as we know it now. Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives premiered a couple months before Ratatouille was released; that’s not to say that “Triple-D” is some hallmark of haute cuisine, but to note that it stands out as part of the mass marketing and popularization of a culture of eating which prioritizes names and locations, experiences and gestures almost over the food itself. The marketing and word-of-mouth for Ratatouille was never about the setting in a Michelin-starred French restaurant but the fact of a rat being in a kitchen. Ten years later, the rat seems almost negligible and the restaurant shines a little more, which is an unintended consequence of our surprisingly changed time and place. As much as I too am intrigued by Gusteau’s – the shining gold of the kitchen and the deep browns and reds of the dining room, the aerial map that Remy draws from his perch above the kitchen itself, the handsome plates they serve up – the restaurant itself is simply a vehicle for self-expression. Remy is humorous and ironic because he’s a rat who desires nothing more than to work in a place where he’d be killed immediately in real life. But he’s magnetic because of his gift for genuine creation and flawless synthesis in a world where those two combined elements signify the height of excellence. Remy does not with his own hands alone make anything more complicated than an omelette in this movie; his signature soup and his titular ratatouille both require some human to help start it. It’s his remarkable ideas which catch our attention and make us warm to him even when he does something empirically wrong, like stealing from the restaurant to placate his hollow-legged brother. The shimmering, Fantasia-like color patterns he can see when he’s eating, the balletic motion of perfecting a soup at Gusteau’s, the Frisbee throws he makes as he sets up his ratatouille: each are beautiful motions and visions which are meant to stand as a supplement for his equally elegant ideas, which can only be represented so far through images and maybe even less through his words, which the humans at Gusteau’s cannot hear.

All in all, Remy is a stand-in for vitality. Life is, to him, an opportunity to make things anew. (There’s a fair bit of the Axiom’s captain in him, although to Remy’s credit he never says anything quite as vapid as “I don’t want to survive: I want to live!“) His father, Django (Brian Dennehy) is a consummate survivor, a perfect rat who does not take unnecessary risks and finds satisfaction in not being ferreted out (or killed) by humans. Remy’s most personal conflict, even more than trying to enforce his culinary will on Linguini (Romano), is with a family which doesn’t appreciate his creative energy. Django is personally conservative, but Remy is a risk-taker. He learns about cooking from reading books and watching TV featuring Gusteau (Brad Garrett), wandering into a kitchen for spices to add savor to his “lightningy” creations. Doing all this takes him perilously close to interacting with the old and surprisingly dangerous woman in the house where the rat colony hides out, but it’s risk that he finds more than worth it. Without it, he would be beaten down, basically dead inside; being the poison sniffer for the colony forces him to come up with increasingly elaborate ways to tell people if their food is clean, but it also bores him to tears.

Remy’s liveliness and creativity are sharply opposed to Anton Ego. Ego works in a vast hall which is shaped like a coffin. He writes on a typewriter with an interesting skull design etched into it. He pulls his reviews out of morgue-like drawers. He is obsessed with having “the last word,” and in at least one case that last word has been starkly final; his review of Gusteau’s, savaging the restaurant of his ideological nemesis, is said to have killed the chef. (This is, for my money, one of the more bizarre and rewarding twists in a film this century, emphasized by how early it comes in the plot.) Linguini, when confronted with the gaunt Reaper wearing a turtleneck and pince-nez, tells the critic that he is pretty thin for someone who likes food. Even Ego’s response to this (pretty weak) insult is lined with morbid intimations:

Ego: I don’t like food. I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.

Based on his BMI, Ego appears to be keeping Samael himself at arm’s reach because of his culinary standards. No character in a Pixar movie has ever been so neatly associated with the idea of death, and his presence in a room has much the same presence as a death: an instant hush and emergent panic.

That’s what makes that review Ego gives Remy’s food, reprinted in full above, so special. Within the context of the film, the review is special because it is the only thing that Ego has spoken of, to this point, which is life-affirming. If life is characterized by changes, by the old and the new, by dynamism – as opposed to death, which is, as far as we know, pretty static – then Ego’s spoken intent to defend the new where he sees it is a way to tell his audience of the unsullied joy of creation. In what must be the twilight of his years, the man who fetishized death in design and mien has a facial expression beyond a scowl, remembering a mother who must be long-dead by now, coming in from an outside that Ego presumably hasn’t seen for half a century. Creation, especially a beautiful and unexpected one within a genre one cares for, can change a person. The idea that “a great artist can come from anywhere” is one that encourages discovery, which by definition requires exploration. It’s hard not to view Paris’ most revered food critic as a man stuck in a rut, and the coffin hall that he writes in is less a humorous statement about what will happen to him than it is a nightmarish rut that he’s chosen to stick himself in without previous hope of release. Like the man in Vampyr who dreams of being shut into his own coffin, Ego has been there for decades; it is bliss itself to watch him awake and steps out of his own when he goes for a second bite of Remy’s food.

Although it’s the implications within the film which are obviously the more interesting, for a long time I was mostly impressed with this dialogue because it’s a rare instance of a film thinking about criticism in an essentially positive light. (Compare that to Lindsay Duncan’s theater critic in Birdman, who promises to give Michael Keaton’s play a bad review; there’s a paranoia there about what critics do and exist to do which is, frankly, stupid. Or think about how criticism of a text can come from outside the typical critical firmament and how name-brand personalities punch down. I’ll never forget the episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” which is a bald and unworthy critique of people who had the nerve to say that Jane Krakowski as a Native American wasn’t funny. I digress.) Criticism, Ego says, is not typically a risky proposition for the critic. In a darkly amusing way, that’s particularly true in his case; no one killed him with food, but he appears to have killed Gusteau with that review. But it can be risky when a critic stands up for “the new,” which “needs friends.” It certainly does. Pauline Kael let her personal feelings get in the way of her reviews sometimes, but she’s instrumental in helping to launch/defend people like Robert Altman, Paul Schrader, and Sam Peckinpah, whose work was shockingly new and strange for their time but is recognized now as ultra-canonical. Roger Ebert went to bat for Werner Herzog, whose films are so strange so as to defy the average viewer’s willingness to watch them. Alan Sepinwall has been at the vanguard of championing shows like The Sopranos or, more personally for him, Terriers. And so on and so forth; critics, even in a time when just about anyone can access anything, can still be a useful conduit for opinion. As the amount of material available to see proliferates, then so too will the number of people who want to preview it or think about it further. Ratatouille may have anticipated the way that our culture wants to see high-level food just about anywhere, but it has received less notice for the way that it understands the role of the critic in not just food, but in any field.

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