Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Overall Plot: 7
Audience Assumptions: No assumptions
Part One: Story and Characters
From 1995 to the late 2000s, PIXAR Animation Studios released a slew of films that are nearly unmatched by any other production studio. While some of the earlier PIXAR films like Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life are more divisive, even the weakest of this series far exceed the narrative and artistic merits of most children’s media. Collectively, the artists involved with the company have influenced the last twenty years of animation to a degree equaling or exceeding that of early Disney and Max Fleisher productions. Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Up, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E occupy slots in “Top 100 Films of All Time!” lists throughout the internet, and for a while, the company’s track record was sufficient to draw audiences despite (and often because of) highly vague trailers that revealed little of the narrative. PIXAR movies are a genre in their own right.
I’ve gone back and forth many times trying to assess the best of this peculiar genre, but I’ve always struggled to define whether certain qualities present in one film can be compared to disparate elements in another. I continue to come up short. However, if I use a vaguer metric to measure these films, asking myself which one I would show to a friend who has never seen a PIXAR film, or perhaps any animated film, and which one satisfies the most when I think of its peaks, the answer is plain.
I have never seen a film quite like Ratatouille.
Oh sure, there are plenty of stories about people pursuing their artistic dreams against their family’s wishes, people learning how to cook, people running kitchens, inheritance conspiracies, and the like. I mean, how many love stories set in Paris do you suppose there are?
Remy, a rat, loves to cook and through a series of coincidences, has the chance to team up with a garbage boy in a Parisian kitchen to awe a vicious food critic. It’s an absurd plot only befitting a children’s animated film, and it immediately raises red flags that indicate the myriad ways it could slip into cliché. The film has a clear antagonist, a setting ripe for slapstick and chaos, a cute animal, and a plot that seems to have few immediate stakes on its surface. And that’s before we add in the ghost chef, the romantic interest, the rat’s family not wanting him to be a chef, the restaurant inheritance subplot, and the rival chef who sets about trying to catch the rat.
But the thing that I think sets this film apart is how it merges all of these elements. The mechanism is the conceit of the film – the rat is the primary protagonist, and while animated, is still very much a rat. He’s small, mostly quadrupedal, and, crucially, unable to speak to the human characters. Remy and the boy work out an adorably hilarious system of communication that suits the tone of the film but still leaves enough imperfection to create tension between the two. The restaurant has emotional significance to each of them as well as the other kitchen workers, raising the stakes and making the critic a viable antagonist. While some of the subplots, particularly the romantic and rival chef antagonist, are among the weaker elements of the narrative, the thematic relevance of the characters involved and the fast-paced dialogue blend them into the rest of the story with few seams.
Part Two: Art Direction and Humor
The art direction of this film is a large part of why the story works so well. On its face value, the character designs are odd, with cartoonish features that look both generic for 3D animation and somewhat uncanny. The rats, for instance, have bulbous noses that droop like raindrops off the ends of their snouts. However, this works to the film’s advantage, challenging the animators to fit the character and narrative into the designs largely through movement and mannerisms. The character designs could fit a variety of characters and don’t seem particularly tied to those of the narrative – until the animators set their expressions and they start to bandy about the kitchen, waving their arms. One of the cooks, Colette, adopts quick angular motions to demonstrate her tenacity in a kitchen dominated by men; the boy, Linguini, has legs like rubber and a puppet-like gait owing to the rat controlling his actions from under his toque; the critic, Ego, is comically Gothic and wouldn’t look out of place greeting visitors to a haunted house.
The voice acting is also well-tailored to the character designs. The only noticeable celebrity voice is Patton Oswalt as Remy, but as with many PIXAR roles, the voice fits the character to the point where the actor playing them becomes merged with the role. The sound design outside of the characters is complex, as the utensils of the kitchen are made of highly variable materials and frequently knocked around. However, the sounds of the film (with the exception of the music, which is characteristically Parisian) are largely underplayed in deference to the visuals.
Beyond the animation, the effects and details of the set have the classic look of PIXAR backgrounds, nearing photo-realism at times but with just enough smoothness and color contrast to fit the animated aesthetic. It doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the beauty of Paris itself, but when the film does show sweeping shots of the Eiffel Tower or Senne, it does the landmarks justice. More of the setting visuals are focused on the restaurant itself and a few other locations like Linguini’s apartment. While these locations are fairly mundane for a film set in the heart of Paris, they also give the film its unmistakable look.
The camera frames many of its shots around the rat, which means that the kitchen is often explored from a diminutive perspective. One of the early establishing shots of the kitchen features an extensive look at the many potential dangers (knives, burners, shoes) that a small animal might face in such an environment, and it does so quite spectacularly. As the story spends more time in the kitchen, the locations start to become familiar, making the ways Remy gets around in an environment not at all suited to a rodent inventive and enjoyable. Even the human-sized shots focus on the layout and look of this particular kitchen, with individual rooms adopting character according to the events that take place within.
Part Three: Themes
Ratatouille is a charming family film on its own, but what elevates it for me is its literary synthesis. The film is flawed, but those flaws are readily forgivable; none of its more awkward components go to waste, most of them being used elsewhere for the purpose of tone, tension, story, or character. What propels it beyond merely being an adequate story, however, are the moments or components that you just don’t get elsewhere, the parts that make the story cathartic.
Let’s skip straight to the end. No, I’m not talking about Ego’s review, though it is spectacular, nor am I talking about the moment when he’s transported back to his childhood when eating the titular ratatouille. These moments are beautifully composed, but it’s what comes after them that I most enjoy. The characters lose the restaurant. They fail. The story, from the point where Remy learns about his chef hero’s death to the point where Ego writes his approval of the restaurant, has been about Remy’s tenacity as a chef allowing him to boost the restaurant back up to its former glory. The film ends on a bittersweet ending, with the restaurant being shut down by the health inspector despite the food winning the approval of the critic.
It’s a small moment, and it’s rectified by the characters running their own restaurant eventually, but I like that the film shakes up the traditional happy ending. It’s not because of the logic of the characters being unable to convince the health inspector to let the kitchen full of rats slide, nor just an excuse to give the characters a better restaurant. The characters all have emotional ties to the prestigious Gusteau’s restaurant, and at no point do they entertain the idea of starting their own smaller venue. Perhaps they’re happier with the much more rat-transparent restaurant, but that’s not the point. The point is that despite all of their efforts, they’ve still lost. The main characters lose the restaurant, Ego loses his credibility, and Linguini loses his celebrity status. However, they make the most of it and keep going.
Failure is a difficult lesson to teach, but it’s a much harder lesson to learn on your own. Yet, it’s also an important one. Treating failure as a wholly bad thing harms everyone; those who fail early in life become dejected and seldom push themselves to live a more fulfilling life, while those who succeed early burn themselves out for fear of failure. It’s inevitable, though; no human in the history of our species has ever gotten through life without failing themselves or their peers in some manner. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but failure is essential to life. It allows you to learn and handle the prickles of life.
Ratatouille shows how we can pull ourselves up and thrive even when our foresight doesn’t quite work out the way we expected, but that’s more than just its concluding remarks; it’s essentially the thesis of the story.
The film offers two clear variants of its thesis: first, Gusteau’s philosophy that “anyone can cook,” and then Ego’s revision that “not everyone can cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere.” These two statements are not quite complimentary, nor do they directly contradict one another. Rather, the first statement presents an optimistic approach that encourages listeners to strive for their dreams, while the second takes a more pragmatic approach with an eye toward open-mindedness. It’s important to push yourself in pursuit of your dreams, but it’s also important to realize that success requires lateral thinking and innovation. Success is a matter of both dedication and creativity.
The film plays around with plenty of other concepts as well, like the importance of balancing family with personal interests, passion overcoming shallow commercialization, and how blood does not define you. Each of these could earn itself a small essay, but I find the idea of unusual success to be more pivotal to the film. It’s a fairly uncommon lesson for a children’s film, but I think it’s a good one to learn.