Jun 18 2012 1:00pm

For Love of Art and the Education of A Critic: Ratatouille

Pixar’s Ratatouille

It took me a moment to figure out exactly what made Ratatouille my favorite Pixar film. Sure, the conceit of an anthropomorphic rat whose great desire is to be a Parisian gourmet chef is darling, and I love to cook, but this is Pixar here. About half of their films have brought me to tears... and Ratatouille isn’t even one of those. Actually, Ratatouille sort of makes me want to dance after I watch it, or maybe sing, or compose sonnets in pig latin.

And then the obvious hit me: Ratatouille is the only Pixar film that is simply about art. About being an artist, developing as a creative force, and discovering your life’s passion.

And about exactly how painful it can be to allow yourself that.

Perhaps that central theme isn’t quite so obvious at the beginning because the main character, Remy, doesn’t want to be a painter or an actor. But creating delicious food is undoubtedly an art, one that the chefs of France dominated for centuries. Where better to set this tale than the shining city of Paris? (Don’t pronounce the “s,” we’re French now.)

We begin with Remy’s journey, one that starts completely by accident—or he might have tempted fate, if we’re being perfectly fair. Like most true artistic beings, the rat is incapable of ignoring his calling, entering the kitchen in the house where his colony resides to sample different delicacies that humans enjoy. There, he learns of a kindred spirit: the jolly, pink-faced culinary demi-god, Auguste Gusteau. After getting the colony evicted—by an old woman with a shotgun, such a cheeky little shout-out to that old trope—Remy is separated from his family and finds himself in Paris. He’s also saddled with a figment of Gusteau, one who gives him advice and directs him toward his destiny.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

And how many of us have done that, in our own way? Imagined our heroes observing and critiquing our work, whispering in our ears and nudging us onto the path of success? And don’t those little voices usually leave us once we find our internal muses, just the way Gusteau leaves Remy at the end?

Next we meet Linguini, slapstick klutz extraordinaire. Unbeknownst to him, he’s the deceased Gusteau’s rightful heir, the son that the chef never knew he had. Gusteau’s old sous chef is the one at the helm of his restaurant now, and he gives the boy a job, secretly relieved that the kid knows nothing of his paternal legacy. When Linguini almost ruins the restaurant’s soup special, it’s Remy’s time to shine. His raw talent creates something divine, but of course, Linguini has to take the credit because having a rat in your kitchen is bad news.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

They form an adorable team once they figure out how to work together, with Remy guiding Linguini like a puppet on strings by yanking his hair. It’s all good and then better, once Remy finds out who Linguini’s dad is, and the kid inherits the restaurant for his very own. He gets the credit and the girl, Colette, and Remy is still unknown.

We see different wrong turns in the artistic journey throughout the film. Remy’s greatest roadblock is his family; ol’ dad and his brother just don’t understand how Remy could possibly see food as anything more than an essential, like shelter or water. But the young rat understands something that he can’t begin to explain to his family: that art is a force for change, that it brings unlikely people together. Despite this innate wisdom, at the beginning of the film we see Remy’s considerable abilities reduced to their lowest common denominator—he becomes the colony’s poison checker due to his keen nose. The stifling of his need to create confines and bores him until a prison break is inevitable. In some ways, Remy’s dad is even more culpable in getting the colony ousted from their home by refusing to acknowledge his son’s talents for anything more than their most practical application.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

Remy then stalls out again by becoming an anonymous artist, doing the work that Linguini has to take credit for, due to his being a rat. Not having that right face to be taken seriously, being forced to hide behind a more acceptable facade, is a problem that many artists have suffered for, made worse for the fact that Linguini is Remy’s friend.

Of course, Linguini’s problem is the exact opposite of Remy’s—he’s the one who is trying to create his parent’s art. Once he finds out that he’s Gusteau’s son, his desire to be worthy of the mantle turns him into a far less lovable guy than he had been at the start. It’s hard to blame him when you know what Gusteau’s sous chef, Skinner, was doing to the family name: turning it into a brand for touting tasteless frozen food products to line his bank account. (Yet another demeaning exercise that artists often cave to for money — who likes them some Wolfgang Puck canned soup?) What Linguini fails to realize is that he has his own special calling: he’s the whiz server on rollerskates. Trying to force his abilities into the wrong box nearly costs him his friendship with Remy and Colette’s love.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

Colette is another figure struggling for her passions. The only woman in a kitchen of men, Colette is the representative for every minority told to stifle their artistic voices. She is tough as nails and skilled to boot, but her position is precarious. As an artist, she does not feel free to explore and improvise because she has to prove herself every day when others do not. And when she finds out that Linguini’s secret is a rat under his toque blanche, she fears for her career, undoubtedly worried that her affection for him blinded her to what was really happening in the kitchen. Nothing kills a woman’s chances of success so quickly as being deemed “lovesick,” after all.

Linguini’s five-star dad—Gusteau himself—suffered as an artist, and that suffering cost him his life. But what ruined the great chef is perhaps even more insidious than what Remy or Linguini are forced to endure: Gusteau was destroyed by criticism, literally and figuratively. The dreaded food critic, Anton Ego, gave the chef’s restaurant a bad review, costing Gusteau’s a Michelin Star and depressing the chef to his eventual death. Importantly, it was not merely a difference in opinion over food that earned Gusteau the critic’s ire, but a difference in opinion over art; Auguste’s motto is quite simple — Anyone Can Cook.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, isn’t it? But it’s one that Anton Ego did not hold with, and he made it his mission to rid the world of it.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

The fear of criticism and, indeed, of the critic, is central to the life of an artist. Creating art is a deeply personal act, but by virtue of creating, you are setting yourself up to be judged at every juncture. Ratatouille addresses that fear and shows us ways to overcome it. There are some who believe that critics hold too much power, and others who believe their words should be ignored, still it changes nothing; Anton Ego is here to stay. What the film wants us to remember is that criticism can be of value if it’s tempered by a respect for what artists accomplish day to day. (Ego is clearly lacking in that last bit, his surname being the clue-in.)

In the end, everyone’s roadblocks are lifted: Colette gets the respect she deserves in the kitchen once Linguini takes control of the restaurant, Linguini gains some humility and discovers that his real abilities lie in the serving trade, and Remy’s family finally learns to support his love cooking and higher knowledge. Remy continues to be the educated, philosophical member of his family, but this time with his father’s blessing.

The transmutative power of art is the victory blow of the film; Anton Ego, determined to sweep Gusteau’s under the rug yet again, is disarmed and ultimately undone when they serve him ratatouille... which sends him thinking back to his mother’s kitchen, a place where he felt soothed and loved as a child. This positive turnaround costs him his credibility as a critic, but he invests in Linguini and Remy’s new restaurant, and seems much happier for having embraced a newfound enjoyment of art and life in general. In the final moments of the film, when Linguini asks him what he wants for dessert from the tiny chef, his response is “Surprise me!”—a rallying cry to anyone who creates. It speaks of the true pact between art and criticism: the two can co-exist provided that the critic agrees to defend imagination and keep an open mind.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

And in Ego’s final review of Gusteau’s restaurant, we find that he and the late chef have reached an understanding. Anton admits that he had misunderstood Auguste’s motto: saying “anyone” can cook does not mean everyone can cook... but it does mean that great cooks can come from anywhere. That, more than anything, everyone should be allowed to cook.

That is the empowering, imperative message of Ratatouille. Everyone is not an artist, but anyone could be an artist. Because, as living creatures, it is simply what we do.

Okay. I guess the movie did make me cry. Time to get a bottle of bordeaux and toast our glorious collective imagination.

Pixar’s Ratatouille

Emily Asher-Perrin misses Paris. She definitely believes that anyone can cook. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Count Spatula
1. Count Spatula
This review is my feelings put perfectly into words. It left me with such a happy feeling that I couldn't help but rate it as my favourite Pixar film. Crying in sadness is one thing, but this film made me cry with joy, which is infinitely harder to pull off.
Count Spatula
2. Iamme
Agree on all counts with this review, as well as the comment from Count Spatula. I've watched Ratatouille more than 15 times (it's my godson's favorite) and with each viewing, I come away loving it more.
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
I agree with all of the good things you said about Ratatouille. The only complaint I have about it is the opposite of my complaint about Cars: it's a great film for adults, but it's not a very good kids film. How many kids can relate to a rat who wants to cook? How many small children could even understand what half of the conflict is about? I'm sure there are exceptions (queue the hordes of people saying that it's their kid's favorite), but in my experience this is the Pixar film that relates to children the least.

That said, everything else about the film is fantastic. One thing you didn't mention is the glorious views of the Paris that we're treated to throughout the movie. Of all the beautiful visuals in all the Pixar films, the slightly soft-focused, slight pastel-tinted panoramics from Ratatouille are among my favorite.
Scott Silver
4. hihosilver28
The funny thing about this thread is that every time a movie retrospective gets posted I'm immediately like, "Hey, that's my favorite Pixar film!" Every. Damn. Time. I'm still quite in awe of a studio that has the capability to foster that response for nearly every single one of their films. Ratatouille was another in a long line of not being convinced by the trailer, but the film just floored me when I saw it.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
5. tnh
Jaspax, I promise you that there are kids this movie is going to speak to. One of the reasons they have such a hunger for stories is because stories tell them how the world works. What does Ratatouille tell them?

An artist can come from anywhere.
But not everyone can be a successful artist.
You have to learn your craft.
After you learn that, talent matters too.
Your real talent may turn out to be something you've never thought of.
Successful art must succeed with its audience.
What making it as an artist means is that you get to do a lifetime of work in that field of art.

If baby artists don't grasp all the implications at the time they see the movie, don't worry -- they'll figure them out later.
Count Spatula
6. XenaCatolica
Well, my son saw it as a foodie nerd in training, 8 yrs. old and already cooking & watching Jacques Pepin. He loves the movie. To an 8 yr. old, there's precious little difference between being able to make great food yourself and magic. "Anyone can cook" = "You, too, can become a Jedi".

And since no one's mentioned it yet, I'd like to say that when Pixar does single parent families, they're a lot better then Disney's tedious parade of comic, bumbling fathers. A LOT better.
John Booth
7. jrbooth
Anton Ego's "one-bite flashback" is my favorite Pixar moment of all time. It's an entire story-within-a-story about the incredible power of food, home, emotion and memory, told in, what - 10 seconds or so? Even without the framing of Ratatouille, it would make for a brilliant short-short film.
Count Spatula
8. Megaduck
This is actually my least favorite Pixar film and now that Emily brings it up, the reason I don't like it is for reasons of art.

It's a very sloppily written film.

This was the first pixar film that when I left the theater I was critiquing the story telling and how the film was put together. I thought the story was disjointed between Remmy and Linguini's plot lines with both of them sliding beside each other but never really connecting to each other.

I thought this movie would have been served much better if it had focused on just one of the characters, either Linguini who finds a magic rat or Remmy who finds a human (in this case I would match Remmy with Colette).

As it is I feel that to much is get shoe horned in without the time to develop everything. One of the great things about the other Pixar movies story telling is that everything just flows from a central concept and feels natural. Here, I feel that peices are added to make a point or for the sake of drama rather then it just 'happening naturally'.

That said, I love love LOVE Anton and think that his critique at the end is one of the best written speeches ever.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9. tnh
Sort of a ratatouille-flavored madeleine?
Count Spatula
10. Stefan Jones
I showed Ratatouille to my sister last Christmas season. It was the first Pixar film she had EVER SEEN, and I think it was perfect for the purpose, because she's an actual working artist. Also, because it is -- after Wall-E -- the least "commercial" of Pixar's films.

I mean, there were Remy plush toys (incredibly cute), and a special bonus DVD of kid-friendly cooking shows. (Alton Brown! Rachel Ray!) (With recipe cards for each major character!) But this wasn't a movie whose plot and characters lend themselves to the usual flood of licensed products.

@jrbooth: I'd FORGOTTEN about that scene by the time of my rewatch. It was Ratatouille's Moment of Power. Unlike the Moment of Power in Toy Story 3 (the last scene) it wasn't a tear-jerker, but a thing of breathtaking joy. Which, like Wall-E's History of Art closing titles, could make you weep from the beauty of it.
Count Spatula
11. JohnnyMac
This the very best kind of review. It takes a work I already know and love and by giving me a deeper insight into it makes me enjoy it all the more. Thank you!
Count Spatula
12. AlBrown
This ranks right up there with my favorites in the Pixar oeuvre. Remy's plight with having his talents accepted ring true to anyone who ever had an artistic urge (which includes most of us in the human race, at one time or another), and his rat friends bring a healthy dose of slapstick to the proceedings (or perhaps I should say a verminous dose, since they are rats, after all). Linguini is a charmingly bumbling leading man, and his romance with Colette is in turns both funny and touching. Surprisingly, though, it is Anton's redemption that steals the show, and ties a neat ribbon around the whole proceedings.
Yes, there are a lot of elements in this stew of a movie, but to me, that is part of its charm--liberal helpings of slapstick, romance, longing, loss, acceptance, truth, redemption, love and triumph. If your own life is such a stew, then you are a lucky person!
Count Spatula
13. Stefan Jones
The topmost image comes a few seconds before my favorite visual in the movie: A beaming Remy showing off his omelettes. A little one for him, a big one for Linguini.

That image is gorgeous. The leaves used for seasoning the omelette, eggshell, dish towel, the shadows of the garret window frame, bricks . . . trivial background details, but beautifully rendered.

The people who made this shot cared about their work.
Count Spatula
15. Frances Asher
What a lovely wise review.
Count Spatula
16. sjwood
Loved it the second time I watched it, though, and I'm about to get pedantic up in this mother, it always bothered me that Remy, who happened to understand humans, ran into Linguini, who it just so happens he could control like a puppet by pulling on his hair. I don't know - just feels like there's a beat missing there. Like a magic spell or something.
Count Spatula
17. StrongDreams
it always bothered me that Remy, who happened to understand humans, ran into Linguini, who it just so happens he could control like a puppet by pulling on his hair.

I always thought of it more as signaling rather than controlling. Wasn't there a "training montage" in which they learned to work together?
Count Spatula
18. sjwood
@StrongDreams - Training montage for sure, but Linguini was definately powerless to resist Remy's string pulling.
Stephen Dunscombe
19. cythraul
There's a really uncomfortable message lurking in this movie, which soured the experience for me: food is better used to impress a snooty food-critic than to feed your starving family. This message is especially ironic in a movie set in France.
Emily Asher-Perrin
20. EmilyAP
@cythraul - Are you referring to Remy's family? Because they're not actually starving, from what I understood in the film. They have to rummage for their food, but that's not a hardship. They eat garbage, and they like garbage. Which hits on another artistic point that you can take from the movie: some people are predisposed to appreciate art and others are not. Remy's family doesn't get it, which is why he shouldn't be stealing from the kitchen's pantry for them when they can get food anywhere else that will suit them just fine.

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