One chef aspires to be the greatest in all of Paris. Another wants to be a success in a world that’s generally kept him at the bottom. The latter has little talent … but the former is a rat.
Disney’s and Pixar’s Ratatouille is a joy of a movie to watch again and again, much more so than a number of movies I’ve been watching lately, with an original premise, enjoyable characters, fun comedy, and an unparalleled mastery of its art. Two unexpected allies form an equally unlikely bond, in a story that laudably examines itself closely while letting its own imagination roam freely.
Noble dreams are worth striving for.
Remy is a rat whose clan happily subsists on eating garbage, but for a rodent with heightened senses of smell and taste, complex even for his own kind, this kind of living is anything but satisfactory. Remy has a marked appreciation for the renowned cuisine of Chef Auguste Gusteau, who owns an eponymous restaurant–but not everyone shares such a high opinion. Anton Ego, a food critic whose lack of empathy is itself legendary, writes a scathing review of “Gusteau’s,” causing the restaurant to lose one of its five prestigious stars. (It’s unclear whether this rating system is based on one from the real world. Michelin’s red hotel and restaurant guides use a three-star system, as Jiro Dreams of Sushi demonstrates.) Gusteau actually passes away, and his restaurant soon loses another star from its rating–both the beginning of its problems and of its hopes. It is Gusteau himself who argues, “Anyone can cook!”
Establishing a problem that doesn’t directly affect or threaten either of a story’s main characters is an interesting if possibly unusual way to begin a movie, but this keeps the plot from feeling “typically” epic. It’s the start of many decisions that prevent the film’s narrative structure from easily being pigeonholed into any one archetype. The story isn’t entirely an inspirational crowd-pleaser, a hero’s journey, or a rags-to-riches lesson, but its willingness to experiment with elements from these and other structural concepts is enough to keep the tale unpredictable while it works to stay focused.
The film’s opening exists largely to establish Remy’s character, his goals, and his abilities. His nose is as capable of detecting poison as of distinguishing between cheeses, but in the big picture, Remy has at least some misgivings about his fellow rats stealing from people’s garbage, which is something the story never glosses over or tries to justify. Our protagonist, meanwhile, has such culinary talent that he is able to combine multiple flavors into a much greater experience.
An old lady lies asleep in her chair while Remy takes desired ingredients from her kitchen; his friends and relatives hide just beneath her roof. Remy catches old broadcast footage of Chef Gusteau, which inspires Remy to begin his journey while setting up the previously mentioned conflict with Anton Ego. The old lady wakes up and grabs her shotgun, making for an insignificant yet surprisingly well done chase scene, complete with impressive and tense music. While the other rats evacuate quickly, Remy goes back to grab Gusteau’s cookbook, and a series of events causes Remy to be separated from the rest of his clan, who is sent elsewhere in a sewer line.
Remy reads pages from Gusteau’s book (yes, the rat is literate) in order to pass the time, and he’s starving. He oddly begins to imagine that Gusteau’s illustrations of himself–and his own spirit–are talking to him, and by sheer happenstance, Remy winds up overlooking Gusteau’s own restaurant.
Two stories become one.
The first big reveal of the full city of Paris is beautiful, and Pixar loves its panorama shots. There’s no time to lose, however–Gusteau’s has a very busy kitchen, with orders coming in left and right, and here we meet Alfredo Linguini, the film’s second main character. This garbage boy, generally addressed by his last name for the rest of the movie, isn’t seen to amount to much, but he is given a chance to make something of himself thanks to the actions of his recently deceased mother.
Remy and “Gusteau” are discussing the various positions and stations of the kitchen, such as the sous-chef and the saucier, making for a fun scene whose main purpose is to let Pixar show off what it knows about restaurant structure. Garbage Boy tries to “cook” while no one’s watching, and he ends up causing more damage than he helps, threatening to ruin a soup. Remy jumps into the kitchen, nearly drowning in a sink, and he works quickly to use his knowledge and skills to save the soup. The camera’s point of view, very low to the ground, shows just how scary a busy kitchen is for a rat, but Remy proves himself to be as incredible at cooking as Pixar has at animation. The rat’s movements are smooth, fluid, and absolutely flawless. His fetching and depositing of items isn’t even a montage; it’s a gorgeous, continuous shot, interrupted only by the sudden reappearance of one very shocked Linguini.
A portion of this soup is summarily carried out to a guest–a critic, at that–before Linguini can stop it, but to everyone’s surprise–including our red-headed hero’s–the soup is received overwhelmingly positively. Thus enters Colette, an established and very up-front worker at Gusteau’s, who is tasked with keeping an eye on Linguini. She quickly makes herself into one of the film’s most interesting and emotionally diverse characters, though the others at least try, as she proves herself capable of being nurturing, stern, sad at times, or even … slightly eccentric and perhaps paranoid. She definitely means well, however, even if she is determined not to be held back by an organizational system she claims is patriarchically turned against her. (This doesn’t actually get much screen time in the film, but given that so much else is already going on, it’s quite possibly for the best, even if it could make an interesting story on its own, given enough attention.)
The sheer variety of stories brings the setting to life.
Linguini, now tasked with reassembling a soup he has no understanding of, is forced to cooperate with his furry savior in order to satisfy their many guests’ increasingly strenuous demands. The two share an apartment and breakfast, the latter made by Remy himself, and it’s not long before Linguini realizes the sheer oddity of the situation he finds himself in. That being stated, Remy learns to control Linguini like a marionette by pulling on locks of the young man’s hair, and the two are off toward success and glamour–if they can stay coordinated, leading to a hilarious “training” montage of Linguini miraculously not cutting his own fingers off.
My biggest problem with Linguini throughout the story is that rarely if ever is he shown actually trying to form an independent understanding of anything Remy does for him, from recipes to techniques, and while he does learn (from Colette, with whom he’s immediately smitten), his near-total reliance on Remy to get anything done causes more problems for the both of them than it should have. Perhaps this was intended, so the story could form its own morality play, but it doesn’t really lend the impression that Linguini wants his job and is willing to make his own effort to justify keeping it.
Colette gives Linguini a series of instructions on how to do well in the kitchen, which start off sounding angry but eventually cool down, and she even gives some neat background information on the various other kitchen workers, so they all have interesting backstories. It’s a really nice writing gesture on Pixar’s part, and Colette herself is not above smiling at Linguini as he takes her advice willingly and without complaint. D’awwwwwww.
While Linguini is in the back room of the restaurant, being repeatedly offered wine by a superior (who suspects a literal and figurative rat) in order to loosen Linguini’s inhibitions, Garbage Boy gets drunk onscreen, which seems odd in a children’s film. It’s played for such absurdity, however, that it’s clear the movie isn’t condoning poor drinking behavior.
Remy eventually is reunited with his brother Emile, whom he teaches to be more sensitive to
the Force different types and tastes of food, but Remy soon winds up being torn among his own family, their thieving habits and his, and Linguini’s needs. Remy is tired of taking from others instead of giving to them, but his father, distrustful of humans, tries to warn Remy by showing a rather disturbing scene of several rats, dead, in traps, along with significant amounts of rat poison.
A stumble, a recovery, and a precision finish. (Some spoilers)
The story establishes a sudden and rather premature emotional relationship for Linguini and Colette, a scene I don’t like and never have (complete with one joke that’s somewhat restrained yet extremely awkward), but this is saved by the movie going one step further and actively testing the depths of Linguini’s and Colette’s relationship. At least part of it, to this point, has been built on lies, as the staff at Gusteau’s is fully convinced of Linguini’s talent.
The deconstruction of Remy’s worldview toward humans is much more confidently handled, and the movie ties this into its own provocative request: the audience is called to give empathy to an otherwise unappealing protagonist, and the film’s unspoken but omnipresent reminder of diseases spread by rodents (at least Remy washes his hands before cooking) flies in the face of Cars 2’s message of blind acceptance.
Pixar’s depiction of Paris is extremely lovely, as Linguini’s “achievements” and rewards begin to add up, and this scene of great emotional height evokes its own kind of ironic suspense, because it raises a big question of if and when everything is going to come crashing down. There’s a hilariously grim moment, which doesn’t bode well for the state of the restaurants in the city, when a health inspector is apparently so massively overworked that Gusteau’s is placed on a months-long waiting list.
The movie’s mood takes a gentle but noticeable downturn, not because of Anton Ego’s return and demand for the best Gusteau’s has to offer, but due to several character relationships being severely damaged. When Linguini eventually does tell the truth of what’s really been going on, it’s received as it would reasonably be in real life. It’s a difficult yet valuable and necessary moment, and the depth of hurt expressed in one character’s eyes is devastating. Here Pixar proves itself adept not simply at creating high-quality art but at using it to evoke an emotional response.
The ending itself is incredible. It’s a technical marvel to witness, and the writing is simply beautiful. It’s not worth revealing in a blog post. The movie’s story, art design, and scene composition work together for an unforgettable result.
Conclusion: A masterpiece, and a delight for all the senses.
To this day I still consider this Pixar’s masterpiece. The story is not entirely like anything I’ve seen before or since, and the ending is surprisingly realistic while also showcasing a hopeful future. The art, music, and writing each have their own kinds of beauty, and they’re put together in ways I never would have imagined. The answers and consequences in the film, as in life, aren’t always easy. That being stated, these answers teach us responsibility for our ideas and our actions while also helping us grow, both as individuals and as contributing members of society.
Other than some unfortunate gags at the expense of several cultures and a random use of “bloody,” this is an exciting, wholesome, and unique family film that is more than happy to tell a compelling and entertaining story to adults as well.
Image credits (thanks to Disney and Pixar)
Main article image – source and source
Remy and Emile – source
Anton Ego – source
Remy eating – source
Gusteau and Remy – source
Remy cooking – source
Colette, with knife – source
Linguini and Remy – source
The sound of bread – source
Colette smiling at Linguini – source
Anton Ego, second picture – source
Remy against Parisian skyline – source
This article was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.