Ratatouille, the latest gourmet souffle from the chefs at Pixar, prepared with gradations of color normally reserved for retrospectives of Impressionist masters, sprinkled with more textures than a petting zoo, and garnished with a slapstick that Buster Keaton would admire, is perhaps the smartest film ever made about food - it certainly has the most sophisticated grasp of cooking, restaurants, and the foodie universe that I've ever seen in a movie, animated or not. Yes, better than Big Night. Yes, smarter than Babette's Feast.
I know from which I speak:
As do you. Yet, oddly, food in movies is a sideline (odd, because theaters make a sizable chunk off concessions). Food in movies tends to be art decoration, succulent prop placement; even when the food looks amazing, as in Big Night, for instance, it's often all about the final product: what's lost is the feel of the kitchen, the talent a good chef has for the right ingredient, the sensation of taste, the surprise of unlikely combinations, and a "highly developed sense of smell" - which our Remy has.
Remy the rat.
The, ah, cooking rat.
I knew this would be a deal breaker: Ratatouille is sort of Finding Nemo for Food Network junkies and Gourmet subscribers; without question the most adult of Pixar's wonderments, it comes along at a moment when Americans will pay $30 a pound for Vermont blue cheese, $3 for a cup of Indian coffee - we truly are "the United States of Arugula," to quote writer David Kamp. But first, you must see past the rat with the Richard Dreyfus rasp. Look beyond the (blue) fur, the tendril of a tail. Try to put out of your mind that tiny pink nose. See past the rat, to the food the rat is preparing ... yeah, eew.
But he's cute! Sweet even!
Remy (voiced by the comedian Patton Oswalt) is also fussy and clever, resourceful, and more important, he does not share his family's appetite for garbage. In the kitchen, he is something of a wunder-rodent, with an unrepentantly cultivated taste for fine dining. The pest is a born cook, and his hero, a renowned French chef named Gusteau, comes to him as a spirit conscience, like Obi-Wan Kenobi in an apron, having died a few years ago when the snobbish food critic Anton Ego (a sneering Peter O'Toole, in the body of a long, corpse-like Tim Burton-ish concoction) dropped one star off his five-star review of Gusteau's, once the tastiest table in town.
The town being Paris.
Brad Bird directed and wrote Ratatouille, and as he got across with The Incredibles and (to a lesser extent) the brilliant Iron Giant, there is such a thing as talent and no talent, good and bad. It's kind of a shocking idea for a big-screen cartoon: Remy knows good food, and he doesn't hide it, and his friends and family out in the French countryside, who eat garbage, do not; and the film does not, at the last second, pull a Disney and everyone is right. It has a thing for gifted outsiders.
It's this war of taste and talent over mediocrity that Bird has kind of made his go-to topic. He finds just the right expression for it here. Remy wants to go to the big city, he wants his family to understand, but they consider him an elitist. He's not, yet they don't understand his love for "the symphony of crackle" that comes with a boiling pot. He prefers local, seasonal ingredients only, and moreover, he knows why eating fresh is not just fussiness. And that family?
They want trash.
But you are not where you come from, Gusteau reminds him. Now, at this point, if this sounds like nothing your children would sit still for, I understand: The chases in Ratatouille are dazzling (rats really can get into anything), and the film is funny and light, but perhaps Pixar has done too much homework? Remy, adorable as he is, plays second fiddle to the movie's ideas of excellence, and never comes alive the way, say, the title recipe does on a plate.
Now if you're an adult who is wise enough to check out Pixar, with or without children in tow, if this all sounds a bit rote (local boy goes to the city, makes his family proud), and the thought of another talking critter film sounds done to death, I understand that, too. What makes Ratatouille more than another pop-culture quipping jungle is, well, the rats actually scurry and climb ... like rats. That can suck the sentiment out of the room.
The other reason Ratatouille proves more endearing than shrill, is, again, that Bird approaches the kitchen, the film's playing field, with hungry, observant eyes - particularly once Remy is flushed from his field house and lands in the kitchen at Gusteau's, where he becomes the star chef.
You ask, but how? A rat?
It's here that kids will eat it up: Remy finds himself a dunderheaded garbage boy named Linguini. They share an understanding: "You know how to cook, and I know how to appear human," Linguini agrees. Remy climbs under the boy's hat and tugs his red hair this way and that, throwing him around the kitchen like a puppet; but it works, the boy becomes a master. Or rather, he's thought to be a genius. But how soon before someone learns of Linguini's secret? Frankly, the movie isn't that interested: Ratatouille lacks a destination, and a serious plot.
"Lacks" is the wrong word.
It discards with story; the animation wizardry here is a Pixar peak, but its soul finds solace in the details, the shade of copper pot, the feel of a restaurant lazily cruising on reputation, the stations of a professional kitchen, how staff move in sync. Which sounds technical, but the film's epiphany comes when a taste of a Remy dish shoots its eater back into his childhood. Good cooking is about connections, it says, but Ratatouille holds no illusions: Rats do not have a future in the kitchen. Which is exactly why Remy is a chef, and artist.
He cooks because he must.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com or 419-724-6117.
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