If you were taking your kids out for pizza, would you rather take them to Pizza Hut, or to some out-of-the-way brick-oven restaurant where you can watch the staff hand-toss the dough and they use their own homemade sauce? Would you rather go for burgers at McDonald’s, which boasts “billions and billions served,” or some family-owned grill long known to locals for the best burgers in the area?
Too many of us, alas, willingly settle for the generic, homogenized fast-food experience over the fresh, the distinctive, the well-prepared. At the cinemaplex, family audiences regularly power mediocre efforts like Madagascar and The Santa Clause 2 to bloated nine-figure grosses, while superior family films — say, Holes or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit — do far less business, and worthy movies like Duma and Lassie go almost entirely unseen.
There are gratifying exceptions. Ever since Toy Story kicked off Pixar’s extraordinary body of work a dozen years ago, the studio’s seemingly magical touch, combining consistent quality and heart on the one hand with popular and critical success on the other, has served as a tacit rebuke to what passes for family entertainment in Hollywood.
Ratatouille, Pixar’s latest triumph from The Incredibles director Brad Bird, covers some familiar ground for family films: overcoming prejudices, following your heart, believing in yourself. But it’s also a family film about pursuing excellence rather than settling for mediocrity, not compromising principles for a quick buck, and putting your heart and soul into something you believe in, even if it’s a risk.
These are themes not many Hollywood studio heads could sign off on with a clear conscience. Then again, hypocrisy is rampant in feel-good Hollywood films. Beautiful people addicted to life in the fast lane crank out generic flicks about characters discovering the joys of the simple, quiet life. Filmmakers pulling down millions per picture make movies about characters who turn their backs on fame and fortune to find true happiness. Stars on second or third marriages make comedies in which the protagonists learn that nothing is more important than family. Call it the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but it’s insincere either way.
Ratatouille, by contrast, is a film of winning sincerity and conviction, from filmmakers unafraid to practice what they preach. The film exemplifies its own message: A small-scale story about a sensitive, talented rat longing to be a world-class chef in a five-star Parisian restaurant isn’t the most obvious pitch for a sure-fire family hit. Cloning Finding Nemo or The Incredibles would probably be a safer bet; even Cars probably looks better on paper.
But Ratatouille is a revelation — a delightfully surprising discovery in a genre that seldom surprises even savvy youngsters, a warm and winsome confection that will be treasured by viewers young and old long after the mediocrities of summer 2007 have been justly forgotten. (For historical purposes, these include — to speak only of family films — Shrek the Third, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Evan Almighty.)
In his family, Remy (comic Patton Oswalt) stands out. A rat with an unusually refined palate and acute sense of smell, he longs to indulge on more than the garbage that sustains his large, undemanding clan. More, Remy is unhappy with his species’ legacy of living by stealing; inspired by human creativity with food, he longs to be a giver, not just a taker.
“I know I’m supposed to hate humans,” he says sheepishly to his baffled father (Brian Dennehy), “but there’s something about them — they create, they discover. Just look what they do with food!”
On television, while the owner of the house they live in snores away, Remy is captivated by the celebrated chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond”), whose popular cooking show and best-selling cookbook celebrate his populist philosophy, “Anyone Can Cook!”
But then Remy and his family lose their home, while Gusteau’s prestige is tarnished after an unfavorable review of his bistro from legendary food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole in a hilariously haughty performance), followed by the sudden death of the great chef himself. Now Gusteau’s shaky legacy is in the hands of his diminutive, parsimonious sous chef Skinner (excellent Ian Holm), who’s primarily interested in cashing in on the master’s name value with licensing deals for frozen food and the like.
That’s when fate takes a hand. Remy’s path crosses that of an awkward, shy young garbage boy named Linguini (Lou Romano, The Incredibles), and the two forge an unlikely partnership in the kitchen, while Skinner looks on suspiciously and Colette (Janeane Garafalo), the kitchen’s lone woman, tries to figure out what’s going on.
Can a rat walk away from a legacy of stealing? Can a garbage boy hope for something more out of life? What happens if their secret is discovered? Can a woman really make it in the man’s world of haute cuisine? What will happen to Gusteau’s legacy?
Without spoiling the nature of Linguini’s and Remy’s collaboration, I can say that Linguini gives the best physical “performance” from a CGI character to date, virtually (so to speak) rivaling the likes of Steve Martin in All of Me and Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black. Bird and his collaborators fill the movie with lovingly observed touches, such as Linguini struggling to get his bicycle into his cramped apartment. All of this builds to a third-act climax that is not only thrilling and hilarious, but ultimately unexpectedly powerful and moving.
Gusteau’s motto “Everyone can cook!” contrasts intriguingly with the unabashed elitism of The Incredibles, which suggested that while everyone may be special, not everyone is super. In the end, when Ratatouille clarifies that while not everyone can be a great chef, a great chef can come from anywhere, I found myself wishing that it has also been noted that cooking isn’t the sole provence of great chefs. (I’m grateful to a reader for pointing out that one of the film’s most memorable moments, a climactic moment in the third act, dramatically suggests that a humble home-cooked meal may rank among the most indelible gastronomic experiences in life — but then, Mom may be a great chef in her own right. Cooking, though, like sports and art, can quite properly be enjoyed even by those who aren’t necessarily very good at them, and that is another important sense in which Gusteau’s motto is worth remembering.)
Like most of Pixar’s oeuvre, Ratatouille is aimed at kids’ funnybones but their parents’ hearts and minds. It’s a little more sophisticated than the average Pixar film, perhaps, and kids under five might find the middle act slow going. Parents should also note that a plot point involves one character’s out-of-wedlock parentage (neither parent is a real character in the story, but it’s clear that they weren’t married).
Ironically, much like Skinner cashing in on Gusteau’s legacy with merchandising deals, Disney has for years been ransacking its classic canon with second-rate sequels like Return to Never Land and Jungle Book 2.
Ever since coming on board at Disney, Pixar honcho John Lasseter (director of the Toy Story films) has been working to pull the plug on such projects, and a couple of weeks ago he reportedly got the whole line scrapped. Though a cash cow for the creatively foundering Disney, these junior-grade sequels were responsible, in Lasseter’s view, for undercutting the prestige of the Disney brand and diminishing the value of major studio releases.
I can’t say I blame the bean counters at Disney for being a little nervous about Ratatouille. The last murine (i.e., rat-related) computer-animated family film, Flushed Away, was a genial but middling effort, and flopped at the box office. Ratatouille is a vastly superior film, but artistry and excellence aren’t always rewarded at the box office. Still, in the long run, integrity and excellence are probably a better business model than always going for the easy dollar.
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Thanks for the review of Enchanted — that’s exactly what I was afraid it would be like.
I remain uneasy about Ratatouille. I thought the end was great, and the beginning was dull (although my 10-year-old son loved it). But mostly I got angry at there being an illegitimate main character. Yes, these people were French, but couldn’t they have had a short marriage, or a wife who sacrificed her husband to fame, or something? I really resent that a Disney film has a paternity test as a major plot point. And I have not seen this mentioned anywhere else.
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I went and saw Ratatouille yet again, as a treat to myself on my birthday. Afterwards, I came across a newly-opened resturant, named… Linguini’s! Well, that was just too good to pass up!
You’ll be happy to know they make their own sauce, and you can watch the pizza dough being tossed… My pizza was excellent, and the service was incredible. When I mentioned to the server that it was my birthday, they gave me a discount, and the owner came over to my table to give me his personal good wishes. A great follow-up to a great movie!
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Thank you for this fine review of this wonderful movie. (I’ve already seen it twice — at the sneak preview and this weekend as well.) However, I must dissent from one line: “I found myself wishing that it has also been noted that cooking isn’t the sole provenance of great chefs.”
[Spoiler warning!] While it is a subtle point, I believe that this very message is conveyed by Ego’s experience of Remy’s ratatouille. It doesn’t take him back to other dishes he’s had at fine restaurants — it takes him back to being a little boy, for whom Mama’s simple vegetable stew was the most wonderful thing in the world, because it was made for him with love.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.