A Rat With a Dream: Ratatouille

As Bob Iger later liked to tell the tale, the idea for buying Pixar came to him while he was watching one of the parades during the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in September 2005. As he watched, he realized that none of the newer parade characters—that is, characters introduced in the past ten years—were Disney characters. They were all Pixar characters. (I can only conclude that Hong Kong Disneyland did not share my love for Lilo & Stitch.) If Disney was to continue, he thought, the company needed Pixar—and the chief creative genius behind Pixar, John Lasseter.

The problem, of course, was that by 2005, relations between Pixar and Disney had reached a breaking point, with Pixar’s Steve Jobs announcing in early 2004 that he had broken off negotiations with Disney, and would not negotiate with them again until and unless Disney CEO Michael Eisner left the firm. That end, Jobs later confirmed, would come after the release of the 2005 (later 2006) Cars—the final film needed to fulfill the Disney contract. Pixar would lose rights to release sequels of Toy Story, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. and Cars. Pixar’s John Lasseter felt nearly ill at the thought.

But on the other hand, Pixar could finally create films without needing the approval of the Mouse—and thus, could finally go ahead with a film that gave Disney several marketing qualms: one focused on a rat.

(Rumors that Steve Jobs specifically pushed for the rat film instead of the other possibility, a robot film, purely to counter-symbol Disney’s famous Mouse, have not been confirmed.)

But as Pixar moved forward with the rat film, Michael Eisner found himself in increased trouble at Disney—partly thanks to his feud with Steve Jobs. In March 2005, Eisner left the film, appointing Bob Iger as his successor. With Eisner gone, the chief obstacle between a Disney/Pixar relationship also seemed gone—thus allowing Disney to release the rat film. Possibly. Disney approved moving the release date of Cars from November 2005 to June 2006. Iger headed to Hong Kong Disneyland, and wondered if just maybe—perhaps—maybe—Jobs might agree to a Pixar buyout.

As negotiations for this proceeded, Disney and Pixar set up a separate, just in case everything fell apart, backup distribution deal for Ratatouille—ensuring that the film would be released by Disney and on time even if Disney and Pixar tempers flared up again. That backup plan turned out to be unnecessary: in early 2006, Disney offered $7.4 billion for Pixar, an offer that Steve Jobs, who still owned 50.1% of Pixar, accepted.

The resulting deal left other Pixar shareholders holding Disney stock, Jobs a permanent seat on the Disney board as Disney’s largest shareholder, and Disney in firm control of Pixar, with John Lasseter gaining a new job at Disney as Chief Creative Officer, supervising both Pixar and the Disney Animation Studios—though Lasseter and other executives stressed that the two animation studios would remain separate.

(This remains mostly true, though Lasseter’s distinctive touch can be seen in all of the subsequent Disney and Pixar films. And in a perhaps not surprising in retrospect development, some of the later Disney films—for instance, Wreck-It Ralph—would end up feeling like “Pixar” films, while as we’ll see, Pixar, in turn, moved on to create the ultimate Disney product: a Disney princess film.)

This was the chaotic background behind the development and production of Ratatouille, finally released in 2007—after all of the negotiations were done. That background perhaps explains why one of the film’s subplots focuses on the eventual ownership of a restaurant famed for its innovation and quality, and another subplot discusses the commercialization of that restaurant’s qualities, with images of its founder slapped on multiple, lesser properties. The ending is bittersweet: for reasons largely beyond the control of the brilliant creatives in its kitchen, the restaurant needs to close, and three of those creatives end up needing to turn to a former rival for financial help.

But it would be a mistake to read Ratatouille solely as a metaphor for the strained Pixar/Disney relationship. It is also very much the story of artistry, food, and yes, a rat.

Director Jan Pinkava had been standing in his kitchen when he originally thought of the idea of a rat with dreams of becoming a chef, which leads me to ask all kinds of questions about his kitchen, but let us move on. It took him another three years to write the script and to convince Pixar that small kids would be willing to watch a film about a rat, but by 2003, Pixar had approved his concept, agreeing that it would be their eighth movie.

Just two years later, Pinkava realized that he would not be able to direct the film without assistance, and asked for help—a request that led to Ratatouille getting taken away from him and given first to Bob Peterson, and then to Brad Bird, who had finally wrapped up work on The Incredibles. An upset Jan Pinkava left Pixar, while Brad Bird faced a new technical challenge: trying to get Ratatouille out by a release date of summer 2007—that, although pushed back from its initial planned release date in 2006, still left animators with only 18 months to finish the film. With a script that Brad Bird felt needed a complete overhaul.

And a need to produce a separate trailer—containing scenes not from the actual film—to be released with Cars in May 2006.

By this time, Pixar animators were almost accustomed to working well behind schedule. Thus, despite the deadline, Pixar animators and designers took several field trips to Paris for inspiration, where they dined at fabulously expensive restaurants, and also contemplated what it might be like to have a chase scene on the Seine River with a rat. (One of the film’s best set pieces, as it turned out.) They also, presumably a bit less pleasantly, took a brief trek into the Paris sewers, which featured in another of the film’s major set pieces.

Back in California, the animators visited culinary schools and chatted with various chefs. Producer Brad Lewis, getting fully into the spirit of things, even tried out a (brief) internship under celebrity chef Thomas Keller, who, if Wikipedia is to believed, has earned seven of the Michelin stars that inspired the star ratings for Ratatouille’s star restaurant, Gusteau. Keller also designed the ratatouille dish, “confit byaldi” for the climax of the film, an elaborate array of fanned-out vegetables that reminds a legendary food critic of the comforts of home. In the film, it rather leaves the impression that surely a skilled rat could find an easier, less elaborate way of preparing vegetables. Though that probably wouldn’t have impressed the critic.

And in a now typical move for animators, who had previously (in Disney days) brought in zoo and circus animals to study, and later (in Pixar days) tropical fish, Pixar brought in several pet rats for animators to watch and draw. They also sent the art department out to take pictures of rotting food, to make sure the piles of rotting food eagerly searched by the rats would look realistic, a touch presumably not approved by all viewers.

For once, computer processing and rendering proved to be lesser issues. As Intel later bragged, Pixar’s rendering software now worked 30% faster. And Pixar animators had learned a significant amount from previous films, making it easier to render fur (Monsters, Inc.), human skin (The Incredibles), water (Finding Nemo) and artificial and natural lights (Cars). The resulting knowledge allowed Pixar to create multiple action packed scenes—and have a moment with a character dripping with water from the Seine. For additional inspiration, animators jumped into a pool wearing chef’s uniforms, to get a full sense of the look.

For the most part, Pixar cast voice actors who could either mimic French accents or were named John Ratzenberger, by now a Pixar staple. (Ratzenberger later confessed that he kept slipping into an Italian accent, requiring his lines to be re-recorded multiple times until the line sounded more French.) The two exceptions: comedian Patton Oswalt, at the time primarily known for his work on The King of Queens, hired for the role after Brad Bird heard Oswalt joke about food, and Lou Romano, at the time primarily known as a storyboard artist and production designer, who had previously worked with Brad Bird on Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Producer Brad Lewis also popped in to do a few additional voices.

In a studio first, two of those “voice actors who could mimic French accents” turned out to be major Shakespeare thespians Sir Ian Holm and Peter O’Toole—the latter almost managing to vanish into his role as a food critic until his final speech about criticism and art, at which point the character disappears and Peter O’Toole emerges. Criticism and art (and many other things) was the sort of thing that Peter O’Toole could and did comment on, at length, even when not in front of a camera or near any recording equipment, so it works in any case, and age did not end his sonorous tones. It was to be one of his last roles.

Most of the film, however, is less about the food critic, and more about the rats. Specifically, one rat, Remy, a rat with a very large family, who has grown up watching and obsessing over cooking shows, especially shows featuring Auguste Gusteau. (The underlying moral lesson here seems to be that if you don’t want rats in your kitchen, don’t turn on cooking shows. Watch cartoons instead. I’m not saying that Pixar and Disney had an ulterior motive here, mind you; I’m just reporting what’s on screen.) This obsession leads him to try cooking on top of the roof and nearly getting fried with lightning, as well as several forbidden trips to a human kitchen. In one of these trips, he ends up caught—and forced, with the other rats, from his home as an elderly woman fires a shotgun at all of them. Remy is soon separated from the rest of the rats, finding himself alone and wet and miserable. In Paris.

Since he’s in Paris, naturally he does the main thing everyone wants to do in Paris—go to a fine restaurant—the one founded by his hero, Gusteau. His motives for choosing the restaurant over, say, the educational possibilities of the Louvre are perhaps slightly influenced by his hunger and his cooking obsession, but still, I can hardly blame him for heading in that direction. I can perhaps blame him for deciding to cook some soup in the restaurant’s kitchen instead of—just a suggestion—taking some food away to nibble on later, but the soup ends up being truly magnificent, so I suppose this was, in the end, a good thing.

His presence in the kitchen does not exactly go unnoticed. New hire Alfredo Linguini, not quite as Italian as he might sound, notices Remy, and after a brief moment of horror, realizes how bright the rat is, and decides to pair up with him. After considerable trial and effort, they realize that if Remy pulls on Linguini’s hair, kinda like a puppet, it will be painful—but it will also let the rat guide Linguini’s cooking, turning the kid into a chef.

And that’s mostly it. Sure, Ratatouille has some subplots here and there—the previously mentioned “who really owns this restaurant”; a long standing feud with a restaurant critic; a small but sweet romance between Linguini and one of the other cooks, Colette; and various high speed chase scenes, including a wild moment over the Seine River which—gulp—almost leads to Remy’s death, gulp gulp. An equally impressive moment happens earlier in the film, as Remy wanders through the roofs and attics of Paris homes, catching glimpses of life below. (Pay very close attention, and you just might see a character from a film then just entering development—Up.) Ratatouille also has an until-then unheard of for Pixar (or Disney) plot involving an out-of-wedlock child who has grown up not knowing his father (and, it turns out, not inheriting the guy’s gift for cooking), and a plot involving a colony of rats who really just want something to eat.

But all of this, along with the Disney/Pixar analogies, is just surface stuff. At its heart, Ratatouille is about pursuing your dreams, about art, and about what you might sacrifice for your art—or, in the case of Skinner, your hopes for big piles of cash. It’s not just Remy, either: a sideplot about Colette Tatou, for instance. shows how hard she’s worked to obtain a position supervising meat preparation at Gusteau. And astonishingly enough, for all its fantasy and insistence that yes, yes, you can achieve your dreams if you pursue them, Ratatouille is surprisingly realistic.

No one in this film achieves their dreams without hard luck and multiple setbacks. Even though they eventually help out, Remy’s family is not initially supportive of his dream. Quite the contrary: they put him to work sniffing out food for poison—useful, but hardly intellectually stimulating. It’s no wonder that Remy ends up sneaking off to the kitchen to watch cooking shows, or that, once separated from his family, he does not exactly try all that hard to look for them—choosing to settle in with a restaurant instead. The other cooks (understandably) refuse to cook with a rat in the kitchen, and Remy’s genuine success turns into a complete failure when the restaurant is closed down for health concerns, forcing him to try again.

In other words, the film suggests that yes, you can succeed—if you are willing to try a second time, and a third time, and maybe even more times than that—something that echoes Brad Bird’s own life and Hollywood career, a series of ups and downs.

I do have one quibble—even by Disney and Pixar standards, Ratatouille is an incredibly male dominated film, with only a few women: the elderly woman at the beginning of the film who chases the rats out of her home and tries to kill them, a random street woman with a single line, a woman who shoots her boyfriend in a blink and you’ll miss it moment, and rotisseur chef Colette. Linguini’s now-dead mother, never appearing in the film, writes a letter that eventually becomes a film plot point. And….that’s it. Everyone else in this film, including all of the rats, is a guy.

But otherwise—sure, the plot manages to be both predictable and implausible. Sure, the camera occasionally lingers too long on exquisitely rendered images of rotting food. But when not focused on rotting food and hordes of rats, this is otherwise a breathtakingly beautiful film, with glorious shots of Paris. And the moment when food critic Anton Ego tastes his ratatouille and remembers home, demands to see the chef, and accepts that yes, great cooks can indeed come from anywhere, even the most unlikely of places….Well. It’s one of Pixar’s most hopeful and inspiring movies, even with its motifs of uncertainty, death, and failure.

The last minute purchase of Pixar and the various distribution questions meant that Disney did not have quite as much time for the usual marketing blitz—not to mention the slight issue that usual partners such as McDonald’s and Burger King hesitated to embrace a film about cooking with a rat in the kitchen. Ratatouille did decently at the box office, pulling in $620.7 million—enough to justify Disney’s purchase of Pixar. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, as well as multiple Annie and other international awards. Disney released the now standard T-shirts, toys (especially cute little stuffed rats) and trading pins, which continue to sell at the various parks. After some debate, Remy began to make appearances at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, along with other Disney mascots. Disneyland Paris opened up a Ratatouille ride; Epcot plans to add one in the near future.

Even better for Disney, Pixar was already moving two more films into completion. Nobody wanted to get overly excited, but the studio thought that perhaps—just perhaps—they were still climbing to new animation peaks. The success of the deal led Bob Iger to take a look at other things Disney could buy—superheroes, maybe. Or spaceships. In the meantime, though, he wanted to know what Pixar could deliver now that it was firmly under Disney’s control.

Wall-E, coming up next month.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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