Max DeCurtins returns with his deliciously detailed re-view of Brad Bird’s culinary cartoon, Ratatouille, which still doesn’t seem like it was ever meant for children.
First things first; let me tell you, Reader, that I definitely did not spend an embarrassing chunk of time that I meant to be writing watching food videos on YouTube instead. Nope. There’s no way that happened. At all.
For whatever reason, I seem to enjoy taking on the food-related movies for 10YA. Such re-views always make me think of college when, in the course of procrastinating, Stevi and I would devise a Linguistics of Food course that we were sure would prove to be the Intro to Human Sexuality of the Linguistics Department. I’m not really sure now what a Linguistics of Food class might have looked like, other than Professor Gordon saying—in his SoCal-kissed Boston accent, mellowed like burnished gold in soft light—words like “chowdah” and “pizzer” and “beeah.” And also plenty of eating, because hey, college.
Thinking about it a decade later, it seems kind of incredible to me that Pixar made a movie at least nominally aimed at children whose principal context was food and professional cooking. Seriously, is this movie even for anyone younger than teenagers? I’m told by teachers of young children that it doesn’t really matter; Remy is a rat who talks, gets himself zapped by lightning, makes Linguini act like an idiot, gets hurled around, etc., and that’s apparently enough to satisfy the tween crowd. But still.
Most kids aren’t known for their adventurous palates, with maybe the exception of my best friend. As a child sipping orange juice, she saw her parents enjoying some champagne leftover from their wedding years earlier. She asked to taste some and, after one disapproving sip, demanded more orange juice instead. Her parents’ reply? “Not until you finish your champagne.”
So here’s the deal. I remembered Ratatouille being a good movie. One of my long-since-dispersed high school circle of friends even gave me a stuffed Remy toy for Christmas in 2007. (I have no idea where it is now.) What I didn’t realize is just how good a movie it is.
There is so much to unpack in this movie, and honestly I had a fair bit of trouble deciding what to make the focus of this re-view. There’s the particularly queer sensibility of director Brad Bird, clearly evident in The Incredibles and just as evident in Ratatouille, in how he treats ideas of difference, self-awareness, and acceptance. There’s the Big Point™ about tribalism vs. diversity, in this movie mapped to the gulf between rats and humans. There’s the idea that life grows boring if you never venture beyond a canon of Old Standbys™ to experience what’s new. And there are brief nuggets about, variously, artists, the role of criticism, what’s elitist and what’s not, and even gender inequality and misogyny in the restaurant industry.
I’ve decided to shine a light on a perhaps less obvious idea in Ratatouille: the somewhat counterintuitive—to say nothing of distressing—reality that people’s minds cannot always be changed by evidence. The simpler narrative in the film is that Remy has to come out as a chef to his father; the more complicated one, when it comes to real-world psychology, is that the humans have to accept that a rat can be a chef. But more on this later.
Remy (Patton Oswalt), murine gastronome and black sheep of not only his family but indeed his whole colony, enjoys cooking, reading Auguste Gusteau’s cookbook, and watching the celebrated chef on TV. While his highly-refined sense of smell is no secret, Remy lives in a closet of sorts—he doesn’t tell his father about his cookbook reading or his TV watching. Only Remy’s brother Emile (Peter Sohn) knows. Naturally, the old lady wakes up and sees Remy and Emile, transforming instantly from hapless spinster into a Bespectacled Machine of Death wielding firearms and poison gas. She doesn’t hit her targets, but does manage to bring her ceiling crashing down, exposing the whole rat colony in the process.
Let’s consider this for a moment. Whenever you hear a right-winger push for more guns in the name of public safety, show them this scene. This is what conservatives think is going to happen? Some octogenarian with a buckshot rifle is going to save the day? Her aim is about as good as your average Imperial Stormtrooper.
Remy loses track of his family in their panicked evacuation. He could have avoided this entirely had he not gone back for Gusteau’s cookbook, which, it should be pointed out, HE DOESN’T FUCKING NEED. Dude knows how to cook already; there isn’t a damn thing in that book that he hasn’t committed to memory, as he’ll later show. Perhaps, like one’s first erotica, it’s difficult to leave behind such a sentimental object. (Seriously, I don’t know where that analogy came from, but hey, we’ll run with it for now.)
Encouraged by a profile of Gusteau in the cookbook that comes to life and exhorts him to stop feeling sorry for himself He ends up on the roof of Gusteau’s eponymous restaurant. Poofing into existence out of thin air (as he is wont to do in this movie), Gusteau (Brad Garrett) quizzes Remy about what he knows about the organization of a professional restaurant kitchen.
I know relatively little about Harry Potter, but having seen most of the movies I’m at least somewhat conversant. At least enough to know that some people have, frankly, a boring Patronus. Harry’s was just a fucking deer. But Remy, he’s got a French chef. If I have a Patronus, I hope it’s a fucking French chef.
Remy goes through the positions, which are accurately represented in part thanks to the fact that in preparation for the movie, producer Brad Lewis and writer Jan Pinkava interned at the fucking French Laundry. Like one does. When Remy spies Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), he’s dismissive, saying, “Oh, he’s nobody, he’s just a plongeur or something,” and Gusteau chides him for it. This bit actually stood out to me for its firm message that every member of the team contributes something valuable and important to the business, a very Brad Bird kind of theme that appears in The Incredibles and also manifests in Ratatouille.
As they watch, Linguini knocks a copper stockpot of soup off the stove, recovers it, and attempts to cover his ass by throwing random shit in there. Remy, who is just SO UPSET that Linguini has fucked up the soup, falls through the skylight and ends up running for his life through the kitchen in one of those physics-defying sequences that makes my father roll his eyes.
Remy’s just about to make his escape when the odor from the boiling cauldron of Linguini’s fucked-up soup convinces him to take action. Having washed his paws with a drop of water still clinging to the faucet, he starts throwing in herbs, aromatics, stock, spices, cream . . . and even though the soup appeared to be tomato-based when Linguini spilled half of it on the floor, after Remy’s additions it comes out a lovely pearly white like the base of a New England clam chowdah.
Linguini catches Remy mid-flourish and traps him under a colander. Chef Skinner (Ian Holm) calls for the soup and thinks Linguini has been cooking in his kitchen. Linguini begins to babble an explanation, but Lalo (Julius Callahan) comes by and ladles the soup into a tureen and sends it on its way to the dining room, at which point Skinner basically turns into the Soup Nazi:
Remy tries to make his escape while Skinner chews out Linguini, but Chef Skinner sees him, and once again Remy finds himself in a dash for his life as he tries to flee a kitchen full of rat-haters. Linguini captures Remy in a glass jar and Skinner orders him to dispose of his victim far away from Gusteau’s kitchen.
Linguini attempts to dump Remy in the Seine but finds that he can’t go through with it. Linguini proposes they work together to save his job. Remy immediately runs his ass away from Linguini, a move that I think we can all agree we’d pull in his position. But Remy comes back, because danger, like misery, loves company. They head back to Linguini’s studio to await their fate at Gusteau’s the next day.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Linguini’s studio strikingly resembles my father’s nostalgic idea of the good old Bohemian days. It’s the sort of entry-level apartment you can imagine some NIMBY-ass Boomer who paid fifty bucks per semester of college crowing about in one of those op-ed pieces shitting on Millennials for having the temerity to be pissed off about having had (and continuing to have) their futures screwed over by their parents’ generation.
Linguini awakes the next morning to find that Remy has cooked him breakfast, and they dash off to the restaurant. Linguini then spends a few minutes in the kitchen making an ass of himself, which is honestly a lot of what I imagine makes Ratatouille entertaining for the prepubescent set. He escapes to the walk-in and vents his frustration at Remy. Skinner passes by the walk-in and hears Linguini apparently talking to himself. Linguini’s excuse is that he’s familiarizing himself with the vegetables, to which Skinner’s actual reply—in a fucking Pixar movie, no less!—is: “One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know!” Just remember, kids: always use lube.
It’s only after this exchange that Remy and Linguini discover a system that works for them. Remy pulls on Linguini’s hair; Linguini responds like a marionette, and thus begins a most unusual symbiosis.
(I note here that with the hairline of a short, Jewish, Eastern-European-by-way-of-New-York retired man in Boca ordering the early bird special, Remy’s technique is unlikely to work on me anytime soon.)
Whenever I see Remy sitting in Linguini’s hair controlling his every move, I always think of that little alien sitting inside the old dude’s head in Men in Black.
Once they get the hang of the marionette thing, Remy recreates the soup, and we’re off to the races. Skinner, in a totally blatant act of misogyny, sics Linguini on Colette Tatou (Janeane Garofalo), who he sees as the most direct challenge to his authority in the kitchen, for further training.
Anthony Bourdain stopped working as a chef a long time ago, but his Kitchen Confidential description of a crass, sexist, largely Spanish-speaking restaurant culture with a sometimes-loose relationship to workplace safety and labor laws probably still describes the current restaurant industry writ large better than the plaid-clad hipster chefs in kitchens full of warm fuzzy feelings who share pictures of their babies with you on Instagram. Colette, who would probably have pinned Linguini to the wall by his balls if she could have, gives zero fucks about him and says so when she calls out the misogyny rampant in Gusteau’s kitchen.
Back in his office, Chef Skinner opens a letter from Renata Linguini, Alfredo’s mother, with a practiced Gallic shrug of indifference to discover that, unbeknownst to both Gusteau and Linguini, the latter is the former’s son. If Linguini finds out, ownership of the restaurant will pass to him.
It surely will not have escaped your notice that Linguini spends his lessons being infatuated with Colette rather than, you know, learning one fucking thing about how to cook professionally. A bit more on this later. Meanwhile Skinner, who has already seen/not seen Remy several times, is tantalized with even more comedy-of-errors appearances/disappearances of Remy. He becomes, like a follower of the alt-right (arguably not all that alt these days), obsessed with exposing the truth behind Linguini’s meteoric rise to fame.
Things come to a head when a customer (a cameo by none other than Thomas Keller) asks the waiter at Gusteau’s what is new. Skinner is enraged that the customer wants food from Linguini, and responds by assigning Linguini a recipe designed to set him up for failure—sweetbreads à la Gusteau. Remy turns it into a success instead, and Skinner is pleased when the orders start flooding in, because nothing wilts convictions like money. After a good night at the restaurant Remy, taking a break out back, runs into none other than his brother Emile. Also, I hope y’all noticed that before Emile recognizes him, Remy chooses to defend himself with a fucking CHEESE KNIFE. If I’m ever accosted in a dark alley, I’m definitely pulling a cheese knife on that fucker.
Emile convinces Remy to come visit the colony in their new Parisian digs. Remy’s hesitant at first, but he relents and ends up like any of us with a right-wing family member who’s a prolific pontificator: listening to screeds and repetitions of firmly-held beliefs, many of which are total fucking nonsense. Remy’s father (Brian Dennehy), who is apparently named Django for absolutely no fucking reason that I can discern, does his best to shame Remy into rejoining the colony. “You look thin, son,” he says. “Why is that? A shortage of food, or a surplus of snobbery?” I guess that’s Republican wit for you.
A moment on this, though. Shortage of food, surplus of snobbery—how often do we hear this trope that it’s unforgivably elitist to actually know something about a subject? Somehow we’ve gone from it being elitist to belong to a club or society that requires, say, a minimum annual income of $250,000—a criterion that by its very nature can only apply to a small group of people—to it being elitist simply to know something about anything. Jesus, our discourse is fucked up in this country.
Anyway, Skinner tries to get Linguini to confess his secrets by getting him drunk on premier cru Bordeaux. As anyone who’s ever had Bacardi knows, there are definitely worse ways to get drunk. What’s amazing about this scene is that Brad Bird actually got Lou Romano sloshed to record Linguini’s dialogue. If that’s not method acting, I don’t know what is.
Skinner, having gotten Linguini drunk, asks him to stay overnight and clean the kitchen. (Dear Trump supporters: just FYI, that’s often the kind of work the immigrants you shit on so much actually do. So unless you want to do it yourself, shut the fuck up.) Linguini falls asleep, and the next morning Remy tries to get him up—or at least not looking like he’s hungover. Then comes my least favorite scene in the whole movie. Let’s take a closer look at this scene, with annotations from my notes:
Linguini: Wait, wait! Don’t motor . . . cycle away. Look, I’m no good with words; I’m no good with food either. At least, not without your help.
So what you’re saying is, you’re a useless fucking moron.
Colette: I hate forced modesty; it’s just another way to lie.
Colette: [sighs] You have talent.
Linguini: No, but I don’t! Really, it’s not me! When I added that extra ingredient instead of following the recipe like you said . . . that wasn’t me, either!
This shit is sketchy. Get to a fucking point already, would you?
Colette: What do you mean . . . ?
Linguini: I mean, I . . . wouldn’t have done that; I would have followed the recipe! I would have followed your advice; I would have followed your advice to the ends of the Earth because I *love* you—uurrrr advice!
This shit is sketchy AF. Time to run over this motherfucker with your motorcycle.
Colette: But . . . ?
Linguini: But I . . . I . . . I have a secret. It’s sort of disturbing . . .
Yeah, because people *love* to hear that.
Linguini (cont’d): Heh heh heh. I have a r . . . [tries to say “rat”]
Colette: You have a rash?
WHOA WHOA WHOA.
Linguini: No! No, no. I have this tiny . . . uh, little . . . little . . .
Don’t say “penis.” DO NOT SAY PENIS.
Linguini (cont’d): A tiny chef who tells me what to do.
Colette: A tiny . . . chef.
Linguini: Yes! Yes, he’s . . . um . . . he’s up here [points to head].
Colette: In . . . your brain.
Linguini: Geeaaahhh, why is it so hard to talk to you?
Maybe if you just treated her with respect and behaved like a fucking grownup, you’d be fine.
Linguini (cont’d): OK, here we go. You . . . inspire me. I’m going to risk it all. I’m going to risk looking like the biggest idiot psycho you’ve ever seen.
Annnnnddd here comes the pepper spray.
Linguini (cont’d): Heh, I mean, you wanna know why I’m such a fast learner? You wanna know why I’m such a great cook? Don’t laugh. I’m gonna show ya!
COLETTE WHY HAVEN’T YOU MOWED DOWN THIS WACKJOB YET.
[Linguini starts to take off his toque; Remy panics and yanks Linguini forward, just enough to land a kiss on Colette. Still trying to decide whether or not to pepper spray him, she ultimately relents.]
ARE YOU SAYING WE WENT FROM POTENTIAL SEXUAL ASSAULT TO ROMANCE IN FOUR SECONDS OF KISSING. WTF.
The Linguini-Colette kiss signals that we have arrived at the high point of Act II, where everything goes swimmingly right before it all turns to shit. Remy discovers the documents in Skinner’s office proving that Linguini is Gusteau’s son and runs away with them, leading Skinner on a crazy chase through Paris whose physics would earn another eye-roll from my dad. After escaping to the safety of a bâteau mouche on the Seine, Remy provides Linguini with the documents and Skinner is fired from Gusteau’s. The trouble begins when Linguini, as the new owner of the restaurant, starts lying outright at a press conference. Linguini learns firsthand what happens when you let someone else’s achievement get to your head and turn you into a giant fucking asshole. To top it all off, he also now finds himself in the crosshairs of Anton Ego, “The Grim Eater” (Peter O’Toole), Paris’ most feared restaurant critic who is almost comically arrogant. Linguini, in a fit of pique, sends Remy packing.
Remy, for his part, shows how NOT to get back at someone who’s pissed you off. He offers the run of the restaurant to his colony. For all his aspirations, Remy’s not perfect himself. He gets captured by Skinner, and after a moment of self-doubt that honestly isn’t all that convincing by this point in the movie, he’s freed by Emile and his father. Remy runs back to Gusteau’s, intent on saving Linguini from disaster, and ends up in full view of the entire restaurant staff.
So about this unusual aspect of Ratatouille I mentioned at the beginning. That aspect being the thing where people continue to cling to something even after they have factual reasons to discard it. The movie speaks to this in a couple of ways. One of the things I definitely dismissed ten years ago is the way that people keep referring to Linguini as a “garbage boy” or a “plongeur” after he’s been promoted, and after they have seen, in Linguini’s soup, what appears to be physical evidence that he’s some sort of culinary prodigy (if a dumbass one at that). Calling someone who’s divorced by their married name doesn’t magically nullify the fact of the divorce.
Adding to his persistent refusal to treat Linguini like a cook instead of a garbage boy, Skinner guilt-trips Linguini into staying overnight and cleaning the kitchen. Cleaning the kitchen overnight was Linguini’s old job; it’s not the job he actually does at this point in the movie. This is like asking someone to do secretarial tasks even after they’ve been promoted to, say, assistant director. It’s a coercive tactic and a demeaning dig that simultaneously insults the person in question and allows you to reinforce the now-false idea that they’re still subordinate to you. Ten years ago, I didn’t pick up on the possibility of reading this scene this way, but now it’s the only way I can interpret it.
Of course, it’s not until this scene, the nadir of the story, that the whole idea of changing one’s mind when confronted with evidence lands front and center. Under pressure, Linguini decides the jig is up and reveals his secret to the other cooks at Gusteau’s. They abandon him, unable to cope with this revelation, after which Remy has a moment with his father, and it’s this one scene, or rather two scenes, that strike me most powerfully after ten years.
Linguini’s speech dares the cooks to give up their preconceived notions, their assumptions, and take a chance on something that the evidence tells them can work. Two things stand out to me in particular about this scene: Firstly, that in most situations people don’t actually appreciate, you know, being lied to; Secondly, and more importantly, that breaking down the psychological barriers people put up to order their worlds and weed out a lot of the complexity of things is really fucking hard. Even direct, visible evidence—such as Linguini’s demonstration of how Remy controls his actions—ultimately can prove insufficient.
It is, in fact, so difficult for many people to adjust their thinking and increase their capacity for sometimes contradictory complexity that sometimes not even the strongest of human connections can overcome an ossified worldview. While I don’t know nearly enough to say categorically that an encounter with a gay stranger or loose acquaintance isn’t enough to change someone’s view of human sexuality, it usually takes a connection as primal as a child, a parent, a sibling, or a best friend to begin to chip away at someone’s deeply-held beliefs.
I think about this a lot because we’re living in a time in which the inability to adjust our thinking to accommodate the facts literally poses an existential threat. I don’t pretend that any of us isn’t guilty of being reluctant to embrace an uncomfortable truth, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many degrees of harm that result from refusing to engage with reality. This isn’t just a societal problem, either. As I have learned—and continue to learn—if you want to change something about your life, one of the first steps is often to admit to yourself that there is something wrong with what you were doing before.
But, this being Pixar, everything turns out okay in the end. Remy wows Ego with a highfalutin interpretation of ratatouille—developed by Thomas Keller specifically for the movie!—and earns a stellar review. Ego’s speech about criticism and the role of critics is another reason I’m baffled that Pixar considers Ratatouille a kid’s movie. Gusteau’s closes, and Colette opens a new bistro called La Ratatouille with a kitchen that’s adapted for Remy. Linguini (who is hopefully not with Colette by this point) does the job that he can actually do well, which is to be the waiter to Ego, a frequent patron—or in today’s ridiculously self-aggrandizing terms, an “angel investor.” Remy’s family accepts him for who he is, and life is just parfait.
Well, that was a mouthful. So what have we learned?
Ratatouille is a gorgeously detailed film, even more so, I think, than The Incredibles—but then, I’ve been a Francophile since middle school. Replete with rich colors, striking lighting, and engaging cinematography, the film oozes the impression of having been crafted lovingly and meticulously. Every frame of it rightly deserved the Oscar it won for Best Animated Film. And speaking of rich colors: I want all that copper cookware. Every. Last. Piece.
If Brad Bird is a master at anything, it’s communicating the idea that acceptance of difference doesn’t lead to fire and brimstone, which these days feels like a message that bears hammering into the public consciousness until blood pours from our eyes and ears. If I have a nit to pick here, it’s that at times the whole tenor of the movie can seem incessantly moralizing. I suppose it has to be, though, because simmering beneath the surface of the story is a veritable cornucopia of ideas that all have to integrate somehow, whether it’s the notion of food as art, a rat as a chef, or any number of other topics that Ratatouille offers up.
Still, what’s particularly engrossing about the movie is how it constantly and seamlessly shifts between these different facets. Sometimes the sexuality/coming out theme is the dominant analogy; other times the rat/human structural racism analogy comes to the fore. The dialogue really is that obvious, to the point where I can literally swap out a few words here and there and come up with things that people actually say about coming out of the closet or about the challenges of systemic bias. There’s always something to rediscover about this movie, and for me, ten years later, it’s the music.
Composer Michael Giacchino’s score for Ratatouille is nothing short of masterful. It’s a convincing blend of symphonic technique and jazz idioms. Cues are developed, fragmented, and used with different instrumentation. It shares a lot of the same jazzy elements of Giacchino’s score for The Incredibles, and when put alongside other scores in Giacchino’s output, such as Inside Out, Rogue One, and the Alternate Universe Star Trek films, it’s not hard to tell that orchestral jazz is clearly his jam in the way that Danny Elfman’s scores are clearly the musical equivalent of Tim Burton’s visual aesthetic. The first glimmers of the movie’s main theme, when Remy climbs onto the roof and takes in the view of Paris for the first time, sound like a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein big-budget musical.
The score showcases different instrumental colors, including flute, violin, guitar, xylophone, and sax—even whistling—but because this is a movie set in France, everything is ultimately tied together by the accordion. No musical code signals “French-ness” like the accordion, but unlike Alexandre Desplat’s simplistic score for Julie & Julia, Giacchino writes for it as a capable instrument in its own right that is just another member of the ensemble.
The score borrows liberally from George Gershwin, as I suppose any orchestral jazz score eventually does. The rat band plays a riff on “I Got Rhythm,” the famous song from Girl Crazy. The scoring for Remy’s triumphant operation of the Gusteau kitchen after all the other cooks leave calls to mind An American in Paris. Giacchino handily incorporates these references without ever sounding like he’s cribbing from other composers, as some famous names [COUGH John Williams COUGH] have been wont to do lately.
Another thing that makes the score for Ratatouille so top-notch is the way that the music is pressed into service to highlight specific points about the characters and their story, in particular Remy’s explanation of how to taste foods individually and then together. The pairing of musical sounds with flavor descriptions and synesthetic visualizations is one of the most Pixar things in this movie. Like the color-coordinated emotion characters and memory orbs in Inside Out, Ratatouille manages a gentle, well-crafted didacticism that makes something a little more accessible that might otherwise seem mysterious.
One thing I learned while writing this re-view is that Bird didn’t just talk the talk with this movie; he walked the walk as well. Ego’s excellent speech about criticism and the possibility that great talent can come from anywhere is realized in Ratatouille in the voice of Lou Romano, who plays Linguini. An animator in Pixar’s art department, Romano had voiced some placeholder dialogue during the development of the film, and Bird liked his voice so much that he cast Romano in the part.
Bird is so talented it’s kind of gross: Ratatouille is only his third animated feature, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. The combination of Bird’s storytelling, visual direction, and Giacchino’s jazzy score makes, in this critic’s opinion—to paraphrase Anton Ego—some of the finest cinema you could spend your precious time watching.
I leave you with the following video, which I definitely did not watch several times, no way, by this dude—with a million YouTube subscribers!—whose shtick is to make dishes from movies and TV shows. God bless the Internet.