"Ratatouille": Animation's Finest Chefs Save Us From All The Fast Food
It’s getting to the point where one might barely associate the output of this wunderkind studio with the rest of the animated medium. There’s other quality work out there, but there’s also so much sheer junk being foisted on us. But while there is no true Pixar formula (you know, other than just doing everything right), one thing occurs to me: Pixar makes stories about passion. Their main characters always have a certain something that really drives their engines. Lesser films have plots that don’t require their characters to care much about what’s going on—or if they do, they fail to really communicate what it’s like to be passionate, and why we should share in that passion. Remy’s love of cooking in Ratatouille ranks among the pantheon of Pixar’s finest passions. We all might love to eat, but watching this film will teach you to appreciate it.
A good passion will drive you to do dangerous things, and that’s another thing that Ratatouille does well. Any good film has to hook you into its story – it has to take you out of your life and put you into its protagonist’s. In Ratatouille, that moment comes with a long tracking close-up on Remy as he crawls through the crannies and passages that a rat takes while the human world looms over him. You could not ask for a more effective demonstration of just how dangerous Remy’s activities are. There are innumerable animated films about characters smaller than humans, but I have never seen any that show the different scales, and the danger implicit in that difference, so powerfully. These scenes, which occur often through the early part of the film and even continue later on, are relentless in making the threat to Remy extremely palpable. Even we homo sapiens balk at what is larger than us, and this film will make anyone who watches it utterly sympathize with characters who are only a few inches tall. The conflict is powered by that scale issue, and Ratatouille conquers that problem without fail.
Everything else in the film is just as rewarding as Ratatouille‘s dual atmospheres of passion and threat. Rarely does an animated film come down the pike where the sheer animation of the characters is so key to the film’s success, and also goes beyond that necessity in quality. Physical comedy is hard to really translate into animation since that style of comedy is based on the ludicrousness of the actual human form, and since animated figures aren’t actual human forms, it’s not quite as funny seeing something that can do anything do anything weird. But the animation is so good in this film that it cracked me up constantly. The vocal performances live up to the physical performances just as well, with Ian Holm and Brad Garrett being particularly excellent. Patton Oswalt was born to play Remy, without a doubt. Huge props should go to Peter Sohn and especially Lou Romano, Pixar crew-side stalwarts who prove their worth behind the mic several times over. And Janeane Garofalo gives the most un-Garofalo-like performance I’ve ever heard; it may be her best work ever.
Of course, this is basically what you expect me to say, right? I mean, it’s a Pixar film. But although I’ve seen many a great film about cooking and food (Tampopo, Big Night, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and many more), I had my doubts whether Ratatouille could hold my attention, and rumors of a troubled production made me wary. The idea was originally Jan Pinkava’s, to be sure, but Brad Bird supposedly rebuilt the whole thing from the ground up, and Bird’s hardly the kind of guy to go about compromising to other people’s lesser visions. What’s funny about this film (that is, besides all the things that are intended to be funny) is that it’s a grand change from Brad Bird’s normal style. To date, all of Bird’s projects have had a certain edge to them, burnt by a little bit of cynicism and aware of oppressive forces that can’t really be ousted. There’s always emotionality and love there, but it had to break through a lot of layers in all of Bird’s previous works. That uncompromising style has served Bird well and given him a very distinct style, but never would I have expected something so honestly and powerfully sentimental from him as well. We’re given a quick hint of the image of rats as evil pests early in the film (a visual reference to Lady and the Tramp did not slip past me), but the character design quickly jettisons that feeling. Essentially, what I’m saying is that you’ll fall in love with this little rat Remy. He’s so endearing, so small and helpless in the world of humans, that it’s the most heartfelt film I’ve seen from Pixar yet. I didn’t think Brad Bird was capable of it, but that goes to show you what I know. I don’t think it’s soppy, fake, or saccharine at all; rather, it really does achieve all those qualities that the films that are saccharine try to generate in their audiences.
Remy has much in common with his makers, as Pixar itself is all about passion. They tell stories the way Remy cooks. Their senses are just as attuned as his, sniffing out flaws and holding a variety of possible choices and additives in their heads. They experiment, test concepts and flavors together, and let their ideas simmer for as long as it needs until it’s just right. And they know that the right spices for something will make even the oldest, most typical dish seem like the most perfect expression of that dish. Have we seen the “follow your dream” story before? Oh, many times. But you don’t really expect to eat a particular dish only once in your lifetime, do you? You just hope that each time you eat it, it has a certain something to it that makes it worth absorbing. Ratatouille has a story that’s always had worth to it, and makes it so wonderfully unique that you’d never think to accuse it of being derivative. A million things right, and nothing wrong. There really is little more you could desire of your entertainment, save to wish that everybody else could be half as good.
All images in this review are © Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios