The inspiration that kickstarted Ratatouille is easy to identify. What’s difficult is understanding how fully its creative and animation teams have realised this inspiration. Here is a movie with a formula that shouldn’t work, by all accounts, because it is about a rat who loves to cook gourmet, five-star food. It is (pun intended) a recipe for ridicule. Yet it shakes off its shackles and escapes unseen, like a shadow. By the end of the movie, where the cute rat has opened up his own fine dining café, we feel a certain affable satisfaction but have no idea how it came to be, or to where it intends to take us.
The original idea for Ratatouille was thought up by Jan Pinkava, the Czech filmmaker who was responsible for one of the greatest Pixar shorts, where an elderly man played chess with himself. But Pixar lacked confidence in Pinkava’s structure, so they hired Brad Bird, who was mesmerised by the social contradictions Pinkava laid down in his initial screenplay. Bird reworked the story, eliminated the fat French chef, Gusteau, and awarded bigger parts to Skinner and Colette. He kept the central premise of a dirty rat gifted with heightened human senses wanting desperately to work in a clean, sophisticated kitchen, and allowed his Pixar team to devise Linguini, the clueless kitchen hand who stood in the middle of the film as a beacon of physical comedy.
But it’s not just the wonky premise that makes Ratatouille such a rare animated classic. It is a movie that represents fully the title of Family Film — indeed, I am sure children across the world will be able to relate to both Linguini and Remy, the rat. Linguini because he is a young carefree boy who finds a pet, essentially, and forges a strong bond with it in the face of adversity. And Remy because he is a determined little fellow with big dreams and an unequivocal passion for food, never mind the glaring omission that he is a rodent.
What’s left for the adults then? The adults, more so than the kids, will appreciate the subtleties in the screenplay, in the dialogue that shapes the relationships between humans and humans, and humans and animals, in the crispness of Pixar’s unparalleled animation, in the design of Paris and the overall attention given to creating a mood that is undeniably French, maybe even a little too French. Like some of the better Pixar films — Wall-E (2008), Up (2009) — Ratatouille is a movie targeted at children 18 years and over.
It begins with Remy (Patton Oswalt) leaping out the window of an old French cottage on a dark, stormy evening after commotion is heard in the kitchen. “I think it’s apparent I need to rethink my life a little bit”, he narrates as a freeze frame of his dire escape is pinned on the screen. This personal manifesto is what underpins the rest of the movie and gives it direction.
For Remy, a life spent living in sewers and attics chomping down on garbage is no life at all. His father (Brian Dennehy), who is more than content to eat his garbage, only wants what’s best for him, so he leads him out on another stormy evening to the storefront window of a pesticide salesman, where dozens of dead rats hang on hooks, looking like talismans meant to ward off evil spirits. Remy is warned against mixing with the humans. They’re dangerous. They kill rats. But not this Linguini. He’s different, or so Remy would have himself believe.
The great Pixar movies believe in something more than just their characters. They transform perception. They take the point of view of insects, monsters, cars, fish, toys, then carefully construct layered stories that place these morphed characters in situations that require them to entertain, question, and intrigue us. In Ratatouille, Linguini (Lou Romano) is mistaken for a good cook, but only because Remy infiltrates the kitchen of the famed Gusteau’s — where Linguini is hired as a plongeur (dishwasher) — and turns a crappy soup into a masterpiece. Now Skinner (Ian Holm), the snivelling head chef of the restaurant, demands Linguini recreate the soup for the menu. How’s that supposed to happen when he has no idea what went into it and in all probability can’t tell the difference between soup and rice? Ratatouille comes up with an ingenious solution: Remy, who is conveniently small enough to crawl up arms and legs and nestle in tufts of hair, discovers that he can control Linguini’s limbs by pulling on certain tufts like gaming joysticks. What’s that, you say? That’s right. Gaming joysticks. It’s altogether ridiculous and marvellous. This sets up a string of comical moments in which Remy tries to steer Linguini out of awkward and uncomfortable situations by treating him almost like a robot. Remy conceals himself inside Linguini’s toque and looks out at the world through its folds. Linguini recreates the soup, becomes a star, climbs up the ladder, falls in love, is pronounced the new head chef, and is otherwise the king of the hill. Remy, meanwhile, is cast aside, because, let’s face it, how is anyone going to explain their success using a rat as an alibi?
Slicing through this fraternal drama is a character that perhaps lifts Ratatouille to a more sinister yet delightful altitude. His name is Anton Ego and he is the scathing, malicious food critic who resembles a walking cadaver and works out of a coffin-shaped office, pounding away on a typewriter that looks like a skull. Anton is voiced by a gravelly Peter O’Toole, who carries within his cadence the intent to inflict physical and psychological scarring. He storms into Gusteau’s grand re-opening and challenges Linguini to produce a dish that will provide “perspective”. What’s a word like perspective doing in a children’s movie? The dish that exits the kitchen is, of course, ratatouille, prepared, of course, by Remy, and Anton is suddenly jolted back to his childhood, remembering the bowl of hearty stew his mother used to prepare. He demands to see the chef. His reaction is sublime.
The movie closes with Anton’s new review, elegantly worded, inspirational to a fault. No kid in the audience will care very much about what he says; his words are for the grown ups.
Cartoons, as they were once called, have always been thought to cater to youngsters, because they’re simple, colourful, and stretch our boundaries of realism in directions no adult is willing to comprehend. We forget that cartoons are created and drawn by adults, adults who have embraced their inner child and have allowed themselves to express fully their artistic dexterity. Once in a while you will stumble upon a cartoon that behaves like a courtroom drama — it is so mature, and deals with themes so heavy it almost performs an illusion before our eyes. Many of the early Disney classics behaved this way. Now, many of the Pixar films do the same. Among them, Ratatouille is outstanding.