Only Ratatouille can satisfy the hunger stirred up by sizzling barbecue season.
Ratatouille is the kind of movie so completely zany in concept that you get the impression it was conceived after someone stared at the word “ratatouille” for too long. On paper, nothing about it works: a movie about a lovable rodent who sneaks into kitchens and puts its grubby little paws all over food intended for human consumption? A hygiene nightmare. Kids would never take to it; parents would never stomach it. And yet …
Conventional wisdom usually leads to conventional results, and happily, in this case, Pixar’s head honchos believed in this wildly far-fetched idea enough to take a $150 million gamble on it. The rest, as they say, is history: Ratatouille would go on to cook up more than four times its budget at the box office and win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
There’s no quantifying Ratatouille’s sheer, brazen originality, though — no squeezing its big, warm heart into a little golden statuette. It’s not numbers or awards that make this the best summer movie ever. Those who mourn the coming of summer blockbuster season do so because the worst of its products are just that: commodities. Studios flood the summer box office with “tentpoles:” big-budget action films or franchise installments that are often creatively low-risk yet always highly bankable, financially speaking. Generally untouchable by reviewers, the archetypal summer blockbuster invoked by the season’s critics is the kind of movie that falls back on tried-and-tested formulas, with a plot that feels like it’s been focus-grouped to such an extreme that the creativity that ought to be at the heart of the film is replaced by the soulless, mechanical result of some particularly exacting marketing science.
All this is to say that despite its Pixar production credit, Ratatouille is as much an outsider to the pitiable trend of recent summer blockbusters as its gourmet-loving rodent is to his greedy, small-minded nest-mates.
Like director Brad Bird’s other feature for Pixar, The Incredibles, the soulful Ratatouille expertly captures a complex reality – in this case, the age-old human battle between obligation and passion – before filtering it through the most accessible of mediums: animation. Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) is torn between duty to family and his true calling: his love of cooking. But while his rattish nature would seem to lead his fate away from the latter – rodents of his kind are hardly known for being choosy with what they eat, let alone for having impeccable culinary taste – the spark that lives in his furry little chest just won’t let him give up, even if it means breaking out on his own, away from his philistine family. Ratatouille also addresses the pressures that come from not following in your family’s footsteps in other ways: Linguini (Lou Romano), the decidedly non-prodigal son of the world-famous Chef Gusteau, is a walking disappointment to his father’s memory until Remy reverses his fortunes, using his chef’s hat like a command center and working him like a Michelin-starred marionette to the acclaim of Gusteau’s diners.
In the real world, family and social expectations aren’t the only obstacles to the pursuit of one’s passion: lack of opportunities and bills, for instance, have a way of seriously testing the patience and commitment of all kinds of creatives. But animation possesses the unique power of communicating even the most intricate of stories with simple, childlike clarity, and it’s Ratatouille’s way of providing comforting moral reassurance by evoking all the hope, passion, and inspiration of our childhoods that explains why it’s still so well-loved amongst its original audience.
While it nourishes us with simple, affirming truths, Ratatouille is never too cartoonish to be taken seriously. That feat is certainly owed in part to the way Bird makes Remy’s moral dilemma a very human one, but it’s also partly down to the film’s spectacular animation. Paris is delightfully rendered in soft glows and golden glimmers, with its quaint cobbled streets and romantic architecture – from its tiny, shabby apartments, to the high ceilings of its ornate dining rooms – pairing paradoxically well with grungy images of the dingy, labyrinthine underworld the city is as equally well-known for. Steaming pots of soup bubble with life-like busyness and each tiny morsel of aged cheese looks as delectable as Remy tells us it is. The dripping fur of his rain-soaked body becomes as impressive as one of the wonders of the world (so finely is its texture captured), while imaginative sequences give full, thrillingly satisfying visualization to abstract concepts like synesthesia.
Ratatouille’s heartwarming story and its sparkling scruffiness are by no means its only triumphs, though. There’s also an excellent voice cast – the cherry on top being Peter O’Toole as the tellingly-named culinary critic Anton Ego – and Michael Giacchino treats us to a flavorful score that sprinkles sugar over the film’s sentimental moments and spices up its energetic kitchen-based centerpieces.
But to my mind, Ratatouille’s biggest coup is in the way it makes a high art form like haute cuisine so utterly accessible to its audience (as Remy’s ghostly human mentor Gusteau succinctly puts it: “anyone can cook”). This is a sentiment even the best TV chefs struggle to get across, but where Gordon Ramsay would have us believe great food can only be born out of spit-spraying, X-rated kitchen tantrums, Ratatouille democratizes the culinary arts for the benefit of all. Its Bob Ross-style approach reminds us of the simple delights to be had in pairing two complementary ingredients together: the scene in which Remy discovers an unexpected harmony between sharp cheese and sweet strawberries is so perfectly evocative of the shining moments in any real foodie’s life that it makes Ratatouille probably the best movie about food ever (except maybe Chocolat).
Like the dish of its title, Ratatouille takes something considered by many a low art form – the summer blockbuster – and restores it to its shining ideal, making good on its promises of originality, eye-popping production value, and, above all, the simple charm of a good story well told. If it can crack even the frozen heart of Anton Ego like Remy does his omelet-bound eggs, then it can crack anyones.