Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Movie Review: Ratatouille

(This review was posted at Happy Catholic right after we saw it in the theater. Having now watched it twice at home on DVD and enjoying it more each time, I am posting it here.)

When "Fin" came up on the screen, I suppressed an impulse to applaud. No need. The audience around me, without my reservations, burst into applause anyway.

We watched Ratatouille under unusual circumstances. It was a 4:00 movie but the theater was full. Perhaps the rest of the audience, like us, had tried in vain to get into an earlier showing only to find it sold out. More unusually, in a movie marketed to children, this audience was three-fourths adults, adults of all ages. In fact, we ourselves were part of that demographic. Hannah, 18, had rearranged a date in order to make the movie with us. We were at the 4:00 movie specifically because Rose, 17, would not be able to make it over the weekend due to work schedules. Such is the power Pixar can induce in those who have learned that they have that most special of talents, the ability to make a good general audience movie that pleases everyone on many levels. Obviously they did not fail to please this time. I thought that nothing could equal The Incredibles, Brad Bird's most recent offering, but he has matched that, if not surpassed it.
Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet.
Julia Child
Remy, the rat, has a love and appreciation for good food that is not shared by the rest of his family who see nothing wrong with eating garbage in all stages of decomposition. Circumstances team him up with Lingune, a hapless plongeur (dishwasher and kitchen assistant), who is trying hard to hold onto his job. Together the two begin to amaze diners at the Parisian restaurant of the late chef, Auguste Gusteau. Conflict arises not only from Remy's need to be hidden and yet guide Linguine, but from the animosity of the head chef, Linguine's romantic interest in the the kitchen's one female chef, the need for the restaurant to regain their five star rating which depends upon the approbation of food critic Anton Ego, and Remy's desire to be understood by his family while being able to express his art.

This is a far from simple set of conflicts, especially for a children's movie, and yet my desire to avoid spoilers leaves the list incomplete. Suffice it to say that the story is told simply and well enough to be thoroughly enjoyed by children while carrying complex food for thought that adults may well ponder long after the movie is finished. As well, this movie is a complete delight for anyone who has an interest in the food world. I will say more about that below, but if you are a "foodie," don't miss this movie. There are many subtle jokes that will delight you.

This movie didn't have the fast paced jokes we have come to expect since Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles. There was a lot of verbal, situational, and physical humor but much of this, while appreciated, didn't result in laughs. However, when the laughs came they were big. Interestingly, when I noticed this, I noticed that the audience was silent the rest of the time. Everyone, including the children, some of whom were quite small, was engrossed by the story and giving it their complete attention. As die-hard movie fans who have attended many movies with large audiences of children, we know how unusual that is. Other than during Finding Nemo and The Incredibles (during which one young boy was so caught up in the movie he was shouting advice to the heroes), the only other time I have seen that was during Two Brothers.

There was a deft blending of living by "real world" rules with fantasy. It is fantastic enough that Remy and Linguine will work together, however, it is made clear that Remy cannot talk except to other rats. This is made clear in several scenes where we hear Remy's expostulations and then are switched to a human's point of view to hear only a rat squeaking. Remy's father constantly reminds him that to become close to humans is to live in danger of being killed as vermin. Yet at the end of the movie when the question of running the kitchen in a moment of extreme crisis must be resolved, a scene evolves that forcibly called to mind the Disney classic, Cinderella.

As always, the technical elements are handled perfectly. Voice work is flawless and not dominated by the big name stars we have come to expect. I followed the advice I read in a review and avoided knowing who was doing which voice so that I would not be playing "spot the voice" through the movie and I pass that same advice to you. Upon finding out who did voice work we were surprised that much of the time we never would have guessed, especially for John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) who has done a voice for every Pixar feature to the extent that it was a joke used in the credit scenes for Cars.

As one would expect, the animation is amazing. Remy scuttles up pipes and underfoot in the kitchen looking very like a real small animal, frightened in an unfamiliar world. When the rat colony is on the move, one automatically feels a bit of natural revulsion at the prospect of that many rats in an enclosed area. Unlike the early Pixar days of Toy Story, human movement is now mimicked on such a good level that we watch an entire kitchen of chefs moving deftly and are never jolted out of the movie's "reality" by motions that don't seem right. The scenes of Paris are so evocative of the real "City of Lights" that, as some critics have mentioned, I wished for more outside scenes. All this was done with "100% real animation" we are reminded in the end credits with wicked humor, with "no motion capture or other shortcuts" used in making the film. (To learn more about the debate raging in the animation industry about what constitutes "real animation," go here.)

A Few Themes
Warning: SPOILERS, please read this after seeing the movie
"I dare say it is rather hard to be a rat," she mused. "Nobody likes you. People jump and run away and scream out, `Oh, a horrid rat!' I shouldn't like people to scream and jump and say, `Oh, a horrid Sara!' the moment they saw me. And set traps for me, and pretend they were dinner. It's so different to be a sparrow. But nobody asked this rat if he wanted to be a rat when he was made. Nobody said, `Wouldn't you rather be a sparrow?'"
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
First and foremost, there is the concept of being naturally drawn outside of one's accepted environment in order to express one's art. Obviously, this is shown in the concept of a rat cooking, which is continually being offset by showing Remy's concern with cleanliness around any sort of food preparation. We also see it in Collette's description of the chefs' backgrounds. She tells Linguine that people think of haute cuisine as snobbish but that the cooks are more like "pirates" who have found a way to express their inner creativity through cooking. (Anthony Bourdain was thanked in the credits and we see his influence in this. As a side note, read his Kitchen Confidential Updated Ed: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly for more about this.)

The idea of being societal outcasts is carried on more subtly, in details about the rat colony. Remy's father's name is Django, evocative of famous jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Having just heard an admirer discuss him, I also strongly associated him with gypsies. It is quite easy to see the association between Django's warnings about outsiders to Remy, their nomadic lifestyle, the constant assertions about "not stealing" and gypsies.

There is a strong theme of criticism in how people approach food, which can be naturally extended to other areas of life and society (such as the movie industry, perhaps?). One group, represented by the rats, view food as fuel. They are uncritical about what they eat and pay only enough attention to make sure they are not poisoned before they unthinkingly stuff themselves with whatever is available. Tellingly, the dastardly head chef's evil scheme is hawking Auguste Gusteau's good name after his death on a line of frozen foods. The opposite group, represented by critic Anton Ego (The Grim Eater), loves food so much that they will not eat anything that is not perfect. This elevates food far beyond its proper place in the scheme of things. Clearly Remy shows us that savoring pure, fresh ingredients and thoughtfully combining them is more satisfying than either of the other approaches. On a side note, we wondered how many people watched this movie and then went home to frozen dinners. Certainly, as I was flavoring the hamburgers while Tom fired up the grill, I found my thoughts drawn back to the movements we saw the chefs' making in the restaurant kitchen.

This approach is further emphasized by the cookbook Gusteau wrote, "Anyone Can Cook." The theme is emphasized over and over again, with the point being made in the final analysis, that not everyone need be a great chef to do so. Seeing the line of everyday people in front of Anton Ego's bistro underscores that theme and it is comforting to me that this emphasis was probably reinforced repeatedly to the Pixar team by their chef consultant, Thomas Keller, who is one of our country's finest chefs himself.

The Pixar team's thoroughness in understanding their subject, as has been noted before, extends to investigating the food world. This local food critic was not the only one pleased by the attention to detail. I couldn't wait to call my mother and share some of the details that no one else in the family caught. Poor Rose. I was continually poking her and whispering information that she just didn't care about. fact that Thomas Keller of The French Laundry had a voice credit ... no one cared. The five star French restaurant that was credited? No one cared.

Most of all, the most evocative food moment was one that explained a question I began wondering halfway through the movie. Why call it Ratatouille? Other than a clever play on the "rat" connection there seemed no reason to name the movie after that peasant vegetable stew. Until the supreme moment of revelation, which was done so perfectly that it brought howls of laughter ... and more whispering in Rose's ear from me. Later on, I asked, "Did anyone get that reference to Proust and the madeleine?" They all looked at me blankly. I felt just as I did when I took Hannah to see Beauty and the Beast, her first movie in the theater, and was the only member of the audience laughing because Lumiere was channeling Maurice Chevalier.

That moment of revelation in the movie's title refocused and redefined the entire movie in a new way around food, identity, and self.
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ...

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.


Jeff Miller said...

Long live Pixar! Pixar treats children as being intelligent and does not condescend towards them. My father who worked in children's theater always drove this point home to me in regards to writing and playing towards a children's audience. Pixar gained my undying love when they refused to do Toy Story 3 without a script worthy of it. For them the story is first.

This is one of the reasons why RATATOUILLE is so good is that the story is both good and consistent throughout. Another company having a story involving rats would have played up their grossness and no doubt have jokes involving rat turds and rat farts somewhere in there ala Shrek.

Unknown said...

There's another category of folks besides foodies who have a special appreciation of this film - those of us who have, or have had, beloved pet rats. In the 'Special Thanks ' credits, the name "Debbie Ducommon " is right under the name "Anthony Bourdain". She is the founder of the Rat Fan Club, and was the film's main rat consultant. It was so great to see a film where a rat is the main hero, and all rats are portrayed with sympathy, not to mention a good deal of physical accuracy - the exceptions being Remy's bipedal stance and the rats having thumbs, both of which were essential to the story. They even got the juvenile rats in the final scene scene right- extra fluffy, with ears that look too big for their bodies.

Jeff Miller said...

Nârwen right about pet rat owners since I owned rats in high school and my first pet in married life was a rat. Though my wife didn't share my rats as pets tastes.