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Film Review: Ratatouille

Ratatouille (2007; Directed by Brad Bird)

Let’s get the utterly obvious out of the way: Brad Bird is a filmmaking genius. The proof is in the pudding (pun intended), and the glorious, inspiring, appetizing, and strangely touching Ratatouille is most definitely the pudding. It’s also a spirited animated metaphor for the possibilities of climbing the social ladder and self-improvement inherent to democracy, at least at its ideal pinnacle.

What sets Bird’s films apart from Pixar’s usual animated delights is not only his astoundingly well-tuned visual senses but the way his scripts enfold larger, more challenging themes than most live-action films even bother with, and deal with them in ways that are never ham-handed or one-dimensional. The legendary Terry Gilliam (who, for all of his gifts, must wish he had Brad Bird’s unfailing sense of cinematic unity) said in an interview a few years ago that “all the really good political movies now are animated films”, and Bird’s films prove him largely right. The Iron Giant and The Incredibles were, in their own ways, conflicted discussions on the nature of democracy. The Iron Giant brought McCarthy-era Cold War paranoia and arms-race militarism face to face with liberal-humanist empathy and walked away with one of most resonant parables for pacifism ever committed to celluloid. The Incredibles considered the mutant exceptionalism of superheroes not as an existential threat to democratic social balance by Nietzschean Übermensch, but as an extension of the encouragement of individualism and personal fulfillment. It also suggested, subtly, that healthier elites would do well to find common ground with the masses they tend to hold themselves above (recall Dash slowing his pace in the track meet near the conclusion).

I suppose Ratatouille is a similarly-couched meditation, though it’s perhaps more universal than that (and of course more entertaining and involving than such an assessment makes it sound). In fact, it’s one of the sharpest parables about class ever told in the cinema, made all the sharper for its setting in the gastronomic milieu of Paris, the clearest example of strict social demarcation in a French society full of such examples. Remy’s passion for fine cuisine and his extreme edification of fictional master chef Auguste Gusteau’s aphorism that “anyone can cook” is no lesser for his being a common rat. In a cartoon instance of amplification through simplification, the socioeconomic assumptions at the the heart of haute cuisine are made starker by being based in a division of species rather than of class. The divisions are also generational, as Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) struggles not only with the doubts of his human proxy Linguini (Lou Romano) but also of his father (Brian Dennehy) and the rest of his rat clan.

But Ratatouille is about how talent and creativity can break the chains of the social hierarchy, how ability can trump pre-determined circumstances. If this is the stuff of progressive post-hippie meritocratic fantasies, then Bird manages to redeem its often-counter-productive naivety. The film sums up this sumptuous potential exquisitely (and vaults over Bird’s previous work) in one climactic moment: the withering, cynical, stork-like Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) tasting Remy’s ratatouille.

The caustic restaurant critic’s arc is somewhat obvious, but the moment of his conversion touches in a profound place. This gastronomic epiphany enshrines the sensual, primal, connective power of food, its ability to transcend prejudices and pre-conceived notions and tap deep wells of emotional memory. In the species of empathy activated in Ego (which allows him to overcome his ego) lies the kernels of tolerance and equality, and the essence of the democratic ideal (rarely approached though that ideal may be in actual democratic society). The scene is the defining moment of a fine film that also transcends assumptions, a classic of the animated form as much for its thematic resonance as for its technical and entertainment achievements.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. September 20, 2014 at 6:09 pm

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