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With the opening of the new Pixar film, WALL-E, scheduled for tomorrow, I thought we might revisit their last film, Ratatouille. Pixar has not only consistently raised the bar for feature and short-length animation films in terms of visual quality, their films are also extremely well-written and usually contain moralistic themes and dilemmas. WALL-E looks to be no different in this regard, especially in light of this interview with director/writer Andrew Stanton. Although Ratatouille was not a great movie overall (although most critics disagree with me on this), it did have many great aspects to it. WALL-E appears to be a more complex film, so I hope that it signals a return of sorts to the glory days of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., but we’ll have to wait and see. So, without further ado, here’s the review of Ratatouille, reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Biblical Worldview Magazine:
Sometimes I leave a movie theater wondering if I have in fact seen the same movie that the critics have seen. Maybe there’s a special “critic cut” that I am not privy to, or perhaps the embedded subliminal messages get lost in my ever-widening brain synapses. As I left the theater last week—having just watched Pixar’s latest animated offering, Ratatouille—I couldn’t help but wonder if it had happened again. Had I missed something? Was there a grander message underneath all of the spectacular animation that had evaded me? Was I expecting too much?
That last question probably has the most merit. I do expect a higher quality product from Pixar than from other studios. Pixar has purposefully set the bar high for itself and normally its films reflect this high standard. While many critics declared that they had lost their focus on 2006’s Cars, I think Ratatouille is actually better evidence of this. Although the film is well-done—the animation and especially the sound design are superb—the story, which is something that Pixar has always had going for it, is rather flat and boring.
The plot in a nutshell, or should I say, a tablespoon, is this: Remy is a rat with a great sense of smell, and therefore, a great palate. He is not content with eating garbage as mere sustenance; he needs to experience food. The subtle complexities achieved by mixing flavors and adding spice and seasonings to enhance the experiential aspects of eating are what drive him to risk life and limb by sneaking into the kitchens and refrigerators of houses instead of raiding trashcans like the rest of his family. His idol and culinary mentor is Auguste Gusteau, five-star chef and author of the bestselling cookbook, Anyone Can Cook. Although Gusteau is long-since dead, he still appears to Remy as a sort of “angel on my shoulder” conscience-guider and moral support cheerleader. When Remy gets separated from his pack as they are fleeing their current home (like rats deserting a sinking ship) he ends up in the middle of Paris, looking straight into the kitchen of Gusteau’s downtown restaurant. Through an unlikely chain of events, Remy teams up with Linguini, the kitchen garbage boy, and together they begin to make dazzling food that brings Gusteau’s back to the forefront of Paris’ cuisine scene. Amid continual conflict and suspicion from Skinner—Gusteau’s sous-chef and now head chef of the restaurant—Remy and Linguini must stay one step ahead to keep up their ruse. What ensues is a predictable, albeit entertaining, race against the egg-timer to prevent Skinner from finding out the truth about Linguini and his “little chef.”
The Main Course
Although Ratatouille doesn’t bring anything particularly novel or unique to the film-going public, this is not to say that it doesn’t have anything to offer—quite the opposite, in fact. First of all, it is a highly moral film. Director Brad Bird is acquiring quite a reputation for his forthrightness of including a definite moral bend to his films. Not unlike Grimm’s fairytales, Bird’s movies have an overt message that is hard to miss. His two previous full-length films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, are great object lessons in moralistic storytelling, minus the preachiness. Ratatouille on the other hand, seems somewhat forced. The strong moralistic lesson of not stealing is not exemplified so much as it is verbalized. Situational ethics seem to prevail as Remy constantly raids the walk-in for food for his brothers and the rodent mafia. Despite Gusteau’s shoulder-mounted sermonizing, Remy does what he knows to be wrong.
Another strong moral that actually comes through the story naturally is truth-telling. When Linguini finally reveals to the rest of the kitchen staff that the source of his culinary talent is actually a rat under his hat, the audience is confronted with the harsh realization that the truth can sometimes cost you everything. Later in the film, when cold-hearted food-cynic Anton Ego asks to meet the chef, Linguini realizes that telling the truth is far easier and preferred to living a life of deception, and he presents Remy to Ego. The subtle plot lines that bring Linguini’s character trait of honesty out are much more effective than the overt attempts to demonize stealing.
A second point that Ratatouille effectively teaches is an appreciation of food as art. Too often American “cuisine” is viewed as how much food you can get for your money. In our culture of super-size fries and free refills, we often forget the chef and focus on the food itself. We have come to accept “customized” as meaning changing the ringtone on your cell-phone or ordering your #5 with no onions. When the menu becomes the standard, the chef becomes nothing more than a laborer; presentation becomes merely finding a way to fit all the food on the paper or Styrofoam plate. Families rarely occupy the same table anymore so meals have become whatever you can shove into your mouth between appointments and customized cell-phone calls. The French may not know much about foreign policy, but they’ve got us licked when it comes to food. Remy takes every opportunity to expose his brother to the appreciation of food, instead of simply viewing it as a material necessity; we would do well to remember this ourselves.
One of the final scenes of the film is by far its finest. Anton Ego, the food critic that was responsible for making Gusteau’s lose one of their five stars, comes back to the restaurant to sample what he thinks is Linguini’s cooking. When Remy decides to serve him ratatouille (the dish) we are transported back to Ego’s childhood. Remy’s food immediately reminds him of Mama’s cooking and Ego’s heart of stone is instantly transformed. His review in the newspaper the next day is well-worth repeating here because it so aptly sums up the work of a critic:
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 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. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions 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 that 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.
Ego’s fresh understanding of his role as a critic is an admission of sorts that “those who can’t, critique those who can.” He comes to agree with Gusteau that artistry knows no socioeconomic bounds. The food that his mother cooked in his humble childhood abode is still the best food in the world to him. The taste is still as distinct in his memory as if it were yesterday. Expecting to meet a tall, dark, and confident food artist in Gusteau’s kitchen, he is instead confronted by a sewer rat. And in this sense, Ego is not unlike the prophet Samuel who went to Bethlehem looking for the next king of Israel. When Samuel saw the sons of Jesse, “he looked at Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’” (1 Sam. 16:6-7). Samuel went looking for a mighty warrior, but instead found a lowly shepherd boy. Two thousand years later, shepherds went to Bethlehem looking for a baby and found the King of kings. High expectations often lead to disappointment, but realistic expectations will frequently be exceeded.