Written & Directed by: Brad Bird
Ratatouille has a few things about it that would seem to damn any chance at popular success in America; for one, in the particularly contentious age of the national embarrassment known as "freedom fries", when Americans are pouring their bottles of vintage Bordeaux down the toilet, it celebrates Francophilia unabashedly in the forms of fine wine, haute cuisine, and the superficial sumptuousness of the City of Lights, which, to risk going out on a limb here, has never looked better on film. Even one of my friends, a hardened despiser of all things Gallic, told me after seeing the film, "Now I want to go to Paris!"
It's also called "Ratatouille", which, aside from its unpronounceability for your average American (sigh), is uninviting; as a character notes in the film, "it sounds like rat and patootie—that doesn't sound delicious!" Finally, it's about rats, for Pete's sake, and the frequent wide-shots of a streaming colony's worth is sure to goose pimple the skin of any human being—particularly one who rents in New York. But those seeming drawbacks are not drawbacks at all, and Ratatouille succeeds because the Pixar team, lead by director Brad Bird, does everything right. It's the stuff that American movies are made of, the sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that made the French fall in love with our movies to begin with—so who cares about all the Frenchness and ratness when both are contained within such a charmingly told and masterfully executed tale?
Anyway, the leads, for the most part, speak American-inflected English, while the peripheral French characters—including a Ren Hoek-looking chef of Napoleonic proportions—also speak English, although with passable French accents of the "wut eez dees" variety. Remy (voiced finely by Patton Oswalt) is a rat living with his family in a rattus rattus community in the French countryside; while his folk are all content to eat garbage, under Remy's father's guiding philosophy that "food is fuel" and nothing more, Remy and his heightened sense of olfaction lead him to a deep appreciation for taste and flavors, in all their combinations. His talent, however, merely relegates him to the dull role of poison checker; but, when separated from the pack, he winds up in Paris and serendipitously at the restaurant of his hero, the recently deceased [human] chef Auguste Gusteau (one of the most delectable character names of recent memory), who appears to Remy throughout the film in figment-of-your-imagination ghost form. Inspired by his motto that "Anyone Can Cook"—also the name of his bestselling cookbook—Remy takes the chance of flavor-fixing a soup boiling in the restaurant's kitchen that was mangled by recently hired plongeur Linguini (stand-out voice work by Lou Romano).
When the soup is a hit, Linguini gets the credit and he and Remy become a team. "You know how to cook," he sums up rather nicely, "and I know how to look like a human." Linguini has a bit in common with Remy as, with his Italian name and boyish bumblyness, he sticks out in France almost as much as a rodent among men. Since cooking in itself is a form of artistry, it makes a nice allegory for art in general, and Ratatouille is at root the story of a boy with an artistic sensibility that figuratively separates him from his family, and ultimately is responsible for his literal separation. (Going back for Gusteau's cookbook during a collective escape—a stirring sequence—is what makes Remy miss the makeshift boat to safety, leaving him orphaned in the mean old world like many a Disney protagonist before him.) In the end though, of course, it will be his salvation; Remy must fulfill his need to create, not just to take like his garbage-thief brethren, and prove to himself and his father that he has worth outside of detecting the scent of poison.
Ratatouille's animated Parisscapes, centered around an outrageously, exaggeratedly large Eiffel Tower, are eye-widening, including a gorgeously foggy scene on the banks of the Seine that outdoes An American in Paris' "Our Love is Here to Stay" sequence for sheer pulchritude. (Excepting, of course, that that's one of the Gershwin Bros'. finest compositions.) Pixar's animation gets noticeably better with each successive film, and the background views of the French capital build on and outdo the American vistas of Pixar's previous film, Cars. The animation sports a remarkable fluidity, whether used in the thrilling action set-pieces—which don't, as in most animated films (including even The Incredibles!), merely feel like levels in the requisite video game—or in the movements of Linguini's appendages, as he is controlled by a hair-tugging Remy concealed in his toque. (The marionette imagery makes the metaphor of chef as animator particularly potent.)
And Bird is nothing short of one of the most talented storytellers working today; the narrative flows forward effortlessly, never getting bogged-down, as it did in the interminable Cars, nor feeling contrived despite its anticipated and obvious outcome. Bird has the courage not to shy away from darker moments, such as when Remy and his father visit the shopwindow of an exterminator that's covered in the dangling corpses of unlucky rats, but for the most part it flies with genuine hilarity, an honestly laugh-out-loud comedy that, unlike most of its contemporary genre counterparts (see: Knocked Up) never gets mired down in its own plot. There are, particularly, a number of good French jokes, such as a brief peek at two lovers who are one minute trying to shoot each other and the next passionately osculating; they seem intended for the adults, and like any good kids movie there are a generous share of such laughs, as when Linguini tries to confess, to his love interest, his secret about Remy, stuttering about his "little chef" which she clearly reads as a euphemism for his penis. She furtively and anticipatorily clutches her bottle of pepper spray accordingly.
That Remy, for being a rat, and Linguini are looked-down upon and assumed unable to cook is a subtle tackling of classism, a socialist undercurrent that runs through the film and is perhaps its Frenchiest aspect of all. The unFrenchiest thing about Ratatouille, however, is its unabashed hostility towards criticism, in the form of a lanky and morbidly Burtonesque (or Goreyesque) food critic by the name of Ego, devilishly voiced by Peter O'Toole. Though Pixar had about a decade-long string of critically and publicly beloved masterpieces, they eventually put out the unfortunate debacle known as Cars; as I've written elsewhere, it was inevitable that Pixar would eventually produce a flop. But apparently feeling betrayed, or at least embittered, in some sense, Ratatouille is palpably contemptuous, concluding with a long speech, nothing short of a goading pot shot, about the futility and arrogance of writing criticism at all.
But a good critic is thick-skinned, and able to take it as well as he gives it, so no hard feelings. (However, should you make one false step in the future, Pixar, don't count on any "benefit of the doubt" apologias from me!) Anyway, the ultimate point seems to be that a marvelous piece of populism, in this case a deliciously prepared "dish for peasants", can turn the heart of any sour and jaded critic—expressed in a wonderful sequence when the cruel critic flashes back to his cheerier childhood of mamasboyery—and Ratatouille is itself a prime example of this particular brand of excellent art. Even the grumpiest Spiderman 3 detractors out there won't be able to help but muster a lasting smile during Ratatouille's one hundred minutes.