Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Ratatouille": review

I saw "Ratatouille" about two weeks ago. As my buddy Charles pointed out, the movie should be experienced on the big screen. I can understand why Charles would say that: the movie features a great deal of swooping, gliding, Spielbergian camera work, and spends a great deal of time in kitchens—especially the kitchen of Gusteau's, the restaurant owned by Auguste Gusteau (almost a palindrome: oh-goost-goost-oh; had they wanted exact symmetry, the Pixar folks should have named him Auguste Stugueau), a plump chef whom we briefly encounter as a TV personality before his untimely death. That's not a spoiler, by the way: Gusteau's demise occurs early in the film. The cause of death? Heartbreak. Gusteau's top-flight restaurant is given a blistering review by none other than Anton Ego—food critic, éminence grise, and bête noire of restaurateurs everywhere. But the restaurant must forge on, and it does so under the leadership of Gusteau's erstwhile second-in-command, the irascible, Yoda-sized Skinner. Skinner is Gusteau's opposite, a sellout completely uninterested in the notion that good cooking comes from the heart and contains more than a dash of integrity. Skinner's master plan is to create a line of Gusteau products such as burritos and other fast foods.

In the kitchen is Linguini, a hapless, sad-sack sort of kid who seems to lack any talent and is desperate for work—any work. Linguini seems inspired by the atmosphere of Gusteau's kitchen, but his attempts at tweaking a soup go horribly awry. Luckily, in that very same kitchen is a rat(!) named Rémy. This rat has dreams. He's come to Paris on his own, goaded in part by the ghostly apparition of Gusteau (the ghost admits several times that he is merely a figment of Rémy's imagination), and by his own desire to leave the rat colony and see the big city. Rémy's peregrinations take him to Gusteau's kitchen, where he is just in time to see bumbling Linguini ruin the soup. Rémy immediately knows what needs to be done to save the soup, and while deftly avoiding the kitchen staff, he manages to turn the soup into something new and delightful. It gets the customers raving, soup orders pour in, and Linguini, who has no idea how the soup could have turned out so well, gets the credit. But Skinner smells a rat. He sees one, too: Rémy is caught and slammed into a bottle, and Linguini is tasked with chucking or killing the pest. Outside the restaurant, Linguini plops down by the Seine and spills his heart out to the rat, belatedly realizing that Rémy can understand him. Linguini needs his job—he's been asked by the suspicious Skinner to re-create the soup—and Rémy wants free rein to cook. Through a strange process of discovery, Linguini and Rémy hit upon a plan: the rat will puppeteer the man, guiding his movements and creating culinary masterpieces, all without Linguini's volition. A modern twist on Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is born: a pair work together for love and honor; the well-meaning bumbler is the public figure while the passionate virtuoso remains carefully hidden.

I won't spoil the movie if you haven't seen it, but that's the basic setup. The movie is a top-quality Pixar product, but it doesn't dethrone "The Incredibles" as my favorite Pixar flick. The main problem for me is the movie's premise: you've got a rat in the kitchen. I'm not sure why it's so difficult for me to suspend disbelief regarding this film in particular, but I couldn't get past the notion of a filthy beast running across floors and standing, unwashed, on the edges of pots while using his grimy, pestilential claws to handle utensils. True: the movie shows Rémy washing a few times, but it also shows him scampering across that floor, climbing onto a counter top, and handling food and equipment without washing. "Anyone can cook!" is Auguste Gusteau's motto, and that, I think, is what the movie is about. A rat is a highly improbable cook, but the rat serves, I suppose, as a kind of symbol for those of us who might be inspired to cook, yet believe it impossible. Perhaps the selection of a rat as one of the main characters was precisely to tweak our sensibilities: a rat? Cook?? Various characters in the movie betray their own anti-rat prejudices (a mass exodus of cooks is one case in point); the issue is never far from the viewer's mind, and neither is Gusteau's optimistic motto. Perhaps that's the discomfort we're meant to experience: we'd like to agree with Gusteau, but to do so, we have to admit that even the humblest among us are capable of greatness.

The problem is that the various messages and subplots in the movie don't seem to jell. "Anyone can cook" is all well and good as a motto, but how seriously can we take this notion when "anyone" can include rats? I admit I'm prejudiced against the little bastards; the old Frenchwoman in the country house at the beginning of the movie had the right idea when she grabbed her rifle and tried to gun down the rats she saw. In order for the movie's message to work, you have to accept the way the story runs roughshod over how nature works. Rémy, for example, figures out that he can puppeteer Linguini simply by pulling on Linguini's hair in various ways. What human being is wired that way? We also have to accept that rats both read and understand English (well, French, I guess, but the text and dialogue are all in English). Normally, I wouldn't complain about talking rats who read and understand other languages, but my point is that, in this film, the only way that "Anyone can cook—even rats" can work as a motto is for us to divorce ourselves completely from reality. And once we realize how much is being asked of us, we might reexamine Gusteau's motto and truly wonder whether anyone can cook. To what extent can you suspend your disbelief?

Compare this movie's cheerfully egalitarian message to the decidedly unegalitarian subtext of "The Incredibles," which is a movie about, among other things, greatness. Suspending belief about superheroes takes no effort at all because we've grown up with them, and the superhero archetype has at least some basis in reality: truly great people do exist: Olympic athletes, fantastic writers, captivating speakers, unwontedly compassionate souls, and so on. They're not superpowered, but they possess the virtues and excellence we recognize in superheroes, in whom those same qualities are merely magnified. But rats who cook? Nope. Not a one. This isn't to say I hated "Ratatouille"; I did enjoy it. But I couldn't buy into the story, perhaps because I couldn't relate to its premises. 

My prejudices aside, most enjoyable for me was Peter O'Toole as food critic Anton Ego. Ego gives a fantastic speech (done as a voiceover narration) at the end of the film, and I count it among O'Toole's best performances. O'Toole has starred in films ranging from the magnificent to the ridiculous, and on occasion his performance actually separates him from the movie in which he appears (cf. "Troy," for example). I think this is the case in "Ratatouille." He is certainly head and shoulders above the voice acting by Lou Romano as Linguini and Patton Oswalt as Rémy the rat. Hats off as well to Brian Dennehy as Rémy's father Django (no relation to the Fett character, I'm sure), the always-solid Ian Holm as Skinner, and to Janeane Garofalo (it always takes me several tries to spell her first name) as the steely-yet-tender Colette, who mentors Linguini for a time.


"Real" ratatouille here at Wikipedia.


Anonymous said...

Looks good, although different from both our version and the version in the film.

Hyunjin's ratatouille is more of a traditional stew type of dish, and the Swiss contingent told us that it was very similar to the French variety (the dinner went well, by the way, but I got so busy I forgot to take pics... sorry about that).

And I think Gusteau is already dead when the film starts, we just don't find out about it right away.

I can't say I share your qualms about the film, but to each his own, as they say.

Kevin Kim said...

I just re-watched the first ten minutes of the film, and my impression is that Gusteau is alive at the very start of the film, but a subsequent broadcast a few minutes in announces his death.

The sequence:

1. News broadcast referring to Gusteau and Gusteau's in the present tense.

2. Quick switch to Anton Ego expressing doubts about the "Anyone Can Cook" motto.

3. Opening credits; fade to country house and gunshot. (At this point, how much time has passed since the broadcast?) We meet Remy, who introduces himself and his life.

4. During this narration, we have the first "rat raid" scene (Emile the brother is introduced, along with Remy's father). Remy finds rat poison.

5. Remy's new job is poison sniffer. Dad is proud. Remy & his father argue.

6. Later: Remy rhapsodizes about humans. Remy is seen watching Gusteau on TV; Gusteau is talking about "music you can taste, color you can smell," etc. (Is Gusteau dead at this point? The audience is under the impression he's alive, I think.) Remy eats cheese & strawberry.

7. "Now I had a secret life." Remy and Emile and the mushroom/lightning scene.

8. Post-lightning, Remy and Emile raid the lady's kitchen for saffron, and this is when they see the announcement that Gusteau is dead. (This is around minute 9.)

It's possible Gusteau was dead well before this, but I tend to think he was alive at the beginning of the film, just based on verb tenses. I guess it could be that we, the audience, were simply seeing flashbacks to news broadcasts of the past during the first minute of the movie, but nothing in those first few minutes leads us to believe Gusteau is already dead.


Anonymous said...

Apparently a whole lot of time passes during the introduction of the film. I guess what I remember is that I thought Gusteau was already dead when the main action of the film started. That is, I didn't get the impression that the "announcement" of his death was an announcement of something that had just happened, but a retrospective on a famous late chef.

But apparently he was alive at the very beginning. I guess it's just a question of when he actually died. I got the impression that Gusteau was dead by the time we meet Remy, but that's really all I can say. Having only seen the film once, I was only left with impressions rather than distinct, detailed memories. I had forgotten about #1 and #2 (I thought Ego's doubts came later in the film) in your sequence above, for example. So it's possible I got the timeline confused.