The Scampering Gourmet
Disgust for rats is probably innate, and any mention of the furry germ bags makes me gag. So you can imagine how unpleasant Ratatouille sounded to me. A movie starring a rat was bad enough, but a French rodent named Remy who becomes a chef and scampers to the pinnacle of human haute cuisine? Beyond nasty!
Willard (the 1971 original, not the 2003 remake) made a big, stomach-turning impression on me. Watching the title nerd let loose his pets Ben and Socrates on his enemies kicked-up my repulsion to a phobic notch. However, there's good news about Ratatouille. I never reached for the barf bag. Leave it to writer-director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and his Pixar colleagues to make the concept of a rodent chef palatable, if not completely appetizing. Though it took a while, this ingenious animated flick won me over with its superior visuals and sophisticated direction.
Taking its title from Remy's signature dish, Ratatouille incorporates rats' deserved reputation for being unclean and unwelcome; and, motivated by self-preservation, they detest humans just as much. Equipped with the taste buds and olfactory mechanism of a true gourmand, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is the exception. A genuine foodie, he's put off by the scavenger ways of his fellow vermin. He seeks fresh comestibles and longs to use them in the finest dishes. How he gets to the point where he can realize his culinary dream is complicated.
Guided by the spirit of a dead chef Emile Gusteau (Brad Garrett), Remy is separated from the colony led by his father Django (Brian Dennehy) and ends up in the kitchen of Gusteau's celebrated Paris restaurant. There he encounters Gusteau's mercenary sous chef Skinner (Ian Holm) and a bumbling young man called Linguini (Lou Romano). It's through the latter -- a gastronomic incompetent who turns out to be Gusteau's progeny -- that he begins cooking up a storm. Specifically, he hides under Linguini's toque and shows him what to do by pulling his hair. Together with female colleague Colette (Janeane Garofalo), Remy and Linguini try to save Gusteau's reputation and win over a crusty food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole).
Welcoming vermin into the kitchen and feasting on their culinary handiwork takes the message of inclusion as far as it can go perhaps. Movies have reached the point where simply anthropomorphizing animals won't cut it: now they have to prepare our meals. We go from Gusteau's democratic mantra "Anyone can cook" -- which encompasses socio-economic status, gender and species -- to the nature-versus-nurture debate. Remy's father is equally opposed to him in the kitchen as hygiene-minded humans. When Django argues, "You can't change nature," Remy replies, "Nature is change." Finally, we go from this Darwinian exchange to a speech by the snooty, emaciated critic Ego in which he sums up the movie's message in these terms: "Not everyone can be a great artist but a great artist can come from anywhere."
True. Yet it does seem that Pixar produces the best artists when it comes to making animated movies. Furthermore, while filmmaking (like cooking) is usually a communal effort, there's really only one chef in "Ratatouille's kitchen. Brad Bird deserves five stars for ensuring the rats are cuddly and colorful enough to be sympathetic, for staging action sequences with clarity and precision (a Vespa chase through the Paris streets is as real as any chase in The Bourne Identity), and for minding the details. Those of us who recoil at the thought of intentionally linking food and rats can appreciate that Bird has Remy's natural brethren disinfect in the dishwasher before helping him prepare the climactic meal.
Bird's only significant misstep is that he comes close to over-stuffing the goose. Ten minutes could have been trimmed off the movie and tots may wander during a few courses. Yet he does save the best dish for last; the final scenes are the most clever and entertaining. Understandably, the foodie establishment didn't feel comfortable endorsing Ratatouille before its release. After a viewing, I can picture Julia Child and all the bygone master chefs applauding from that kitchen in the sky. I still don't want vermin near my food and I'll never watch Willard again, but my compliments to the chef for almost making me forget rats spread The Plague.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar and rated "G" as suitable for all ages.)