Ratatouille (2007)

Sous chef Skinner catches Remy conferring with Linguini. "Ratatouille."

Directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Brad Bird & Jim Capobianco; story by Jan Pinkava & Brad Bird. Produced by Brad Lewis. Music by Michael Giacchino. Edited by Darren T. Holmes. Production designed by Harley Jessup. Animation supervised by Mark Walsh and Dylan Brown. Starring the voices of Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett.

In a sense, the idea of selecting the “best” film from Pixar Animation Studios seems foolish, if not downright ungrateful. Since 1995’s Toy Story, the wizards at Pixar have dazzled audiences with delightful movies that gain a little something, I think, from being so individual and yet so recognizably part of the same whole, like slices from a pie. Every Pixar production is absolutely itself, yet hums with the same energy and care of its brothers, so much so that it only make sense that characters from one film would appear in little cameos in the others: they all feel like they inhabit the same universe. Even when one takes into account Pixar’s arguably lesser entries (like 2006’s Cars), they are only “lesser” in the sense that they represent a relaxing of standards, and are not altogether bad films. The storytelling, animation, and overall spirit from entry to entry remain uniformly strong, and when we watch a Pixar film, we are in good hands. To single out a “best” almost seems pointlessly contrary.

But nevertheless, we are allowed our favorites, and for me, that favorite is 2007’s Ratatouille. This is not to take anything away from Toy Story or Finding Nemo or The Incredibles or Wall-E or…etc, etc. It simply reflects that, for myself, this film has an extra spark that puts it at the top of the heap. With every project, Pixar has taken steps forward in combining advanced animation with increasingly smart storytelling, in ways meant to equally enrich children and entertain adults. Ratatouille stands as one of their most sophisticated efforts, made with such generosity and confidence that it speaks for itself. Lots of animated films (including Pixar’s) take out insurance policies on themselves, peppering their stories with pop culture jokes, wacky action beats and big stars to attract a large crowd. There’s little of that in Ratatouille, just strong filmmaking. I like to think that out of all selections from the Pixar canon, Walt Disney would have been proudest of this one, because it seems the most assured and effortlessly touching.

Part of that effect is via the animation, which of course in Pixar films is of consistent quality. Here, the artistry gets an added boost of lushness that would feel right at hope in an expansive 50’s Disney production. Every animated film today is composed with a computer, and this is a rare one in which we think not of pixels, but of a rich canvas that invites worthy comparisons to oil paintings from the masters. In Ratatouille, the city of Paris is realized with vibrance and warmth, even when we are venturing into its sewers and dimly-lit drawing rooms. We see the twinkling of lights, the discoloration of kitchen tiles, the contours of cobblestones, the gorgeous light patterns that infiltrate bright kitchens and claustrophobic mouse holes alike. We get notions of Parisian culture and cuisine that seems to come from a real place. The film takes the passions of its characters seriously, and uses its wide frame to illustrate them. And it is lovingly textured, from the sweeping cityscapes to the luscious foods stuffed in a restaurant’s pantry, to every hair on the head of its hero, Remy, who dreams of being a world-class chef despite being, yes, a rat.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a food-lover blessed with a highly refine palette, his worldview established thusly: “If you are what you eat, then I only want to eat the good stuff.” His father, Django (Brian Dennehey) is not so picky: “Food is fuel. You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is gonna die.” But Remy cannot help himself. He stands on his legs, worries about where his hands have been, roasts some cheese over a makeshift spit in order to add just the right flavor, while his brother, Emilie (Peter Sohn) darts his eyes worriedly. And it is Remy’s efforts to add an extra bit of rosemary to his dinner that causes a chain reaction leading to the eviction of his rat family from their cottage home, in a scene that negotiates the tricky difference between the fantasy of an animated rodent hero and the reality of a disgusting rat nest.

Remy gets separated from his family and winds up at the door of the world-famous Gusteau’s Restaurant. Gusteau, a legend in his field, is recently deceased thanks to a final devastating review from Paris’ most ruthless food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), and now Gusteau’s Restaurant coasts on name recognition that has been exploited for naked commerce, as well as a slavish devotion to the great man’s classic recipies. What the place really needs is new blood and fresh ideas, not rehashing the same old stuff…and, really, this whole situation is kinda like the plight of the Walt Disney Company before Pixar, don’t you think? Maybe a little bit? Maybe?

A rat is not welcome in a three star restaurant kitchen, especially one that wants to earn back those missing two stars. This is made abundantly clear in a sensationally-animated sequence in which we get a rat’s-eye view of Remy’s attempt to traverse across the floor unnoticed, which has more twists and surprises than a rollercoaster. And when Remy is caught, he is given up to be exterminated by the restaurant’s new plongeour (washer of dishes), Linguini (Lou Romano). Linguini has no aptitude for cooking, while Remy has lots, and what with one thing and another, soon they strike a bargain, with Linguini taking credit for Remy’s brilliance, while the rat hides under the man’s toque and controls him like a marionette (in one of the film’s more preposterous but entertaining) conceits.  Soon they are the toast of Paris, putting Gusteau’s back on the radar of the monstrous Ego and pitting Linguini against the restaurant’s suspicious sous chef Skinner (Ian Holm), who has good reason for some of his suspicions.

Like many Pixar productions, describing the plot brings to mind one movie, but observing it presents quite another. This is a magical film that simmers with passion, delight, and riotous character invention. The villains are especially well-done: the critic Anton Ego is so gaunt and imposing he looks on loan from the Addams Family, and the Napoleonic Skinner is one of the most teeth-gnashingly venial creations of the Pixar universe. The clumsy, goofball Linguini is likeable and makes a good match for the flinty but warm-hearted sole female cook Colette (Jeaneane Garafolo); we buy their humanity even as their character designs push the boundaries of caricature.

And then there is Remy himself, whose body language is so persuasive that we dismiss the reality that he is a pest and engage with him as an individual with dreams as big as any human’s. Here, the Pixar animators engage in the same creativity the used in 2008 for Wall-E, portraying a character who communicates so eloquently without speaking. Note the way Remy savors the process of adding those extra ingredients to a crucial pot of soup, wafting the scent towards him. Or the rich dialogues he has with Linguini without ever actually speaking to him, especially in their first scene together, where a little shrug contains such a universe of frightened modesty. Remy’s joy is endearing and his obsessions downright tangible. Despite being a rat, he is the main character, and the film never neglects that. A late scene involves Remy, as he is talked about to a group of human characters, and a lesser film would push him aside. Instead, he is front and center, his reactions wordlessly carrying the scene. That level of skill is markedly, uniquely Pixar.

The film’s sophistication indubitably comes from writer/director Brad Bird, who previously made The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, and contributed to some of the best seasons of the TV classic The Simpsons. Bird, who came to this pre-existing project just off of The Incredibles, rewrote the story by Jan Pinkava and threw out a lot of Pinkava’s unworkable ideas. The result, despite its inspiration, is pure Bird: if there is a theme that runs through his writing, it is that of celebrating people for their differences and contributions. His work is a reaction to a world that, as he sees it, trivializes achievement. Or, as his character of Bob Parr says in The Incredibles, “They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” Bird’s screenwriting argues in favor of singling out those who are special, and against soul-crushing homogeny. Some may say such an attitude smacks of Ayn Rand’s objectvism, but I think that’s a slight but crucial misconception. Instead of expressing disdain towards those who are unable to compete, Bird’s philosophy is gentler and more nurturing: if you have a talent, you should be allowed to show it.

That attitude permeates Ratatouille even down to its own talents: Oswalt, a standup comedian with some TV work prior to this film, is an unlikely lead for a big studio production, but his voice is perfect for Remy: his pitch is the exact level of a fervent connoisseur frustrated by the lack of comprehension from those around him. Romano, as Linguini, has a (forgive me) forgettable voice that resonates perfectly with the easily-overlooked Linguini. Even the most recognizable stars disappear into their roles: Holm as Skinner seems to relish the kind of role where an actor is encouraged to practically spit on the microphone, while Garofalo’s Colette is so beautifully French and spirited she does not sound like Garofalo at all. As for O’Toole…well, in many ways he gets the film’s closing sequence all to himself, and through him, Bird puts a closing statement on a work that humbly submits itself as a masterpiece.

If I sound unreasonable as I fawn over Ratatouille, I understand. It’s a film that doesn’t have the established fan base of some of the other Pixar films. But that only adds to Ratatouille’s piquant flavor. I acknowledge its flaws, starting with the fact that its central conceit is, when you think about it, gross (although that is mocked by the sublime little moment when one character almost throws up at the idea). Like any great dish, Ratatouille’s real strength is that it combines ingredients that should not work, and makes something that works wonderfully. The screenplay’s thoughts on the value of creativity would be meaningless if it didn’t take the same steps. I also like the way the film honors its French locale by even adopting the charming way a French comedy will get momentarily distracted by itself, such as the scenes where Colette teaches Linguini the craft of working in a professional kitchen and describes the ins and outs. It’s so delightful I worry not a bit about whether or not it “belongs” there.

While watching Ratatouille for the umpteenth time in preparation for this review, I was struck anew by how well the film draws its strands together: the politics of Gusteau’s kitchen, the love story between Linguini and Colette, the other love story between Linguini and Remy (his “little chef”), the evil plans of Chef Skinner, the albatross of Anton Ego, how Remy’s family interact with those subplots, etc. There’s a special thrill that comes when you are told a good story, one that has several pieces, each one essential, and then all is proved when the time comes to pay them off, elegantly, at once. By the time Ratatouille closes, we are satisfied, the way a great meal satisfies and nourishes us, and leaves us with a smile. And then there is the final “Fin” title card and the animated closing title sequence, which is like an after dinner mint: not necessary, but a lovely parting gift all the same. It shows that they care.

NOTE: In a delightful and subtle in-joke, when Colette identifies to Linguini one of their co-workers as someone who used to run guns “for the resistance,” composer Michael Giacchino very quickly quotes one of his own themes from the video game Medal of Honor: Underground. Very cute, Michael. The entire score is perhaps Giacchino’s finest achievement. Sorry, Up.

GRADE: A-

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