Friday Film Focus: Ratatouille

Remy — the earnest little rat who is the hero in Brad Bird’s Ratatouille — is such a lovable, determined, gifted rodent that I want to know what happens to him next now that he has conquered the summit of French cuisine. Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) is a culinary genius. He teeters on his hind legs to keep his front paws clean. Along the way, he generally conceals the soul of a poet inside the body of an incontinent rodent.

Remy is a member of a large family of rats who ply the trash cans and sewers of a Parisian suburb (just like good rats should). “Eat your garbage!” is a phrase often uttered by Remy’s father, Django. Remy, not content to eat garbage like his family, has the very un-rat-like urge to soothe his palate with extraordinary tastes; he is a gourmand. After having spied the cooking programs of famed but recently deceased Parisian chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), Remy is now entranced with the idea of creating transcendent meals. To Remy, humans are an inspiration. To humans, Remy is vermin. This is a complicated state of affairs, especially when fate washes the talented rat into Paris. Remy landed right next door to the late Gusteau’s classy eatery (which was suffering a downturn in fortune). Remy has always been blessed (or cursed) with a refined palate and a sensitive nose. Once there at the location, Remy skulked around the kitchen of Gusteau (his culinary hero).

Alas, when the monstrous food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) issues a scathing indictment of Gusteau’s recent cooking, the chef dies in a paroxysm of grief. The kitchen is then taken over by the sniveling little snipe Skinner (Ian Holm). Lowest of the low is Gusteau’s “nephew” Linguini (Lou Romano). He must be hired, and thus is assigned to the wretched job of plongeur  — one who washes the dishes by plunging them into soapy water. Scampering fretfully among the whirling ladles, carving knives and angry spurts from the gas burners, Remy’s delicate nose sniffs out the insulting scent of compromised soup. He can’t help but risk life and paw to remedy the dish. To leave it would be a sin against his soul. Linguini and Remy meet, somehow establish trust and communication, and when Linguini gets credit for the soup that the rat has saved with strategic seasonings, they team up.

Remy burrows into Linguini’s hair. He’s concealed by his toque, and can see through its transparent sides. Remy controls Linguini by pulling on his hair as if each tuft were a joystick. Together, they begin to astonish Paris with their culinary genius. It’s an inspired concept, transforming the cooking sequences into astonishingly animated slapstick homages to Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton. Judged solely in terms of animation technique, Bird’s film is quite brilliant. The over-bright, fauvist colors have now been tempered by a richer, more subtle palette. There is a tangy sense of authenticity to the kitchen scenes. The meals are lovingly prepared by a band of ex-cons and cardsharps before being ushered to a palatial dining room that thrums to undertones of clinking glasses and murmured conversation. Bird’s animators concoct a Paris of bustling little squares and misty riverside walkways.

Certainly, Remy’s first sight of the city is as romantic as anything you’ll find in Amélie. Visually, nothing is beyond Pixar. From the fineness of Remy’s fur to the rain-slicked cobbles of the City Of Lights, they somehow grant synthesized surfaces the textures of life. What is most lovable about Remy is his modesty and shyness (even for a rat). Many animated characters seem to communicate with semaphores, but Remy has a repertory of tiny French hand gestures, shrugs, and physical expressiveness.

We have the portly Gusteau as a floating figment of Remy’s overactive imagination to chivvy the little fella along. Remy, like many artists, is a whisker away from madness. It’s farcical and poetic all at the same time. Bird and his co-writers leave room for quiet moments and gentle morals. However for the most part, they send visual gags and verbal punchlines at an enjoyably demanding speed. It helps to whip up the film’s energy at every turn.

The wide-ranging score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles) stays perfectly in sync with the action. It encompasses string and accordion-based Gallic overtones as well as a light percussion that suggests the scampering of rat paws. It is impossible not to read Remy as a straight metaphor for Bird or Pixar as a whole. Not everyone can be a great artist, but true art can come from anywhere. Bird is an artist who looks deep into humans (even in rat form) and sees something magical. His films feel like gifts, and Ratatouille is his masterpiece.

Image Source: Pixar Animation Studios/Disney Enterprises, Inc.