What’s more fun than bats in the belfry? Rats in the kitchen! At least, that is the answer suggested by Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Studios with their blockbuster hit RATATOUILLE. Audiences and critics seem to agree. The computer-animated film earned over $600-million at the world wide box office, received a 96% aggregate approval rating at both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, is currently at #112 on the IMDB top movie chart, and was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in five categories (including Best Animated Feature) – more than any other animated film except Walt Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991, which is the only animated film ever nominated in the Best Picture category). As if this were not enough, there are some who believe that RATATOUILLE should have received a Best Picture nomination as well, instead of being relegated to the animation category. With the Academy Awards ceremony due later this month, now seems like a good time to reassess the praise dished out to the film, or as the sinister food critic Anton Ego would put it, “After reading a lot of over-heated puffery…you know what I’m craving? A little perspective.”
One should quickly add that “perspective” is not synonymous with “cynicism.” Only a cynic dedicated to validating his own cynicsm could dismiss RATATOUILLE’s delectable qualities: the movie is fast-paced, clever, funny, and even occasionally moving. In short, it is a delightful treat. But is it, as some would have us believe, a gourmet masterpiece?
Not quite. I think what we have hear is the cinematic equivalent of “Availability Cascade” (a term coined by U.S.C. professor Timur Kuran). This is defined as “a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.” Or put more simply: If 100 people are telling you the movie is great, you are likely to agree; then you become part of the 101 people who convince the next guy that the movie is great, which leads to 102 convincing the next, etc.
I want to make a careful distinction here. I am not saying that RATATOUILLE is bad or that critics praised it out of mindless peer pressure or that audiences enjoyed it because critics told them to. Rather, my argument is that, when a film receives nearly universal approval, it becomes difficult to express a contrary opinion without being dismissed as a bitter real-life version of Anton Ego. This unanimity of opinion leads to an illusion of perfection, which in turn reinforces the perception of the film as not only Oscar-worthy (which it undoubtedly is) but also as somehow under-rated or snubbed, because it did not receive a Best Picture nomination.
Hefty heapings of critical praise feed the theory that RATATOUILLE is the victim of an anti-animation conspiracy. The “cataclysmic event” launching this cascade seems to be A.P. writer Jake Coyle’s article ‘Ratatouille’ may have been squeezed out of best pic because it’s animated, which has been syndicated to several online outlets. Coyle begins by contrasting the animated film’s up-beat story with the “tales of depravity” seen in the live-action nominees for Best Picture. He then quotes several experts who suggest that consideration for a Best Picture nomination were taken off the plate since the Academy has a separate category for animation:
Tom O’Neil, a columnist specializing in awards coverage for the Los Angeles Times’ “The Envelope” website, has pondered whether “Ratatouille” – which he calls the best reviewed movie of the year – is the equivalent of “Beauty and the Beast,” only it had to deal with the specialized category.
“Is this a case where it’s penalized and ghettoized because there’s a separate category for animated fare?” O’Neill said. “It seems to have the same respect in the industry and among film critics as ‘Beauty and the Best.”‘
Building upon Jake Coyle’s article, Dominic von Riedemann advances a conspiracy theory at Suite101.com, arguing that the Best Animated Feature category was deliberately created to prevent animated features from being considered for Best Picture. Almost the opposite is true: the Animated Feature category was created to help earn recognition for films that are traditionally shut out from the Best Picture category (in much the same way as the Best Foreign Language Film category operates).
In point of fact, Walt Disney Pictures (according to a New York Times article referenced in Slashfilm.com) was reluctant to push RATATOUILLE for Best Picture, fearing that Academy members might split their votes between both categories and end up giving it nothing. With a win in the Animated Feature category almost guaranteed, the risk was deemed too great.
So, why the belief that RATATOUILLE was somehow snubbed by Academy voters? Basically, the film’s boosters are lamenting that the Cascade Effect* did not cascade quite far enough. Jake Coyle’s article quotes the facts and figures to convince us that the film simply had to deserve a nomination. Among other things, the title appeared on the year-end top-ten lists of critics at over twenty major outlets, including Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Empire, LA Weekly, The Boston Globe, and Slate.com.
Clearly, the vast majority of critics savored the film with all the enthusiastic gusto of Anton Ego enjoying the titular dish. Whether the Oscar-worthy accolades were completely warranted – or even particularly articulate – is not so clear. They definitely lack the poetic joy that Ego himself summoned when articulating his epiphany at the end of the film.
Roger Ebert rather generically named RATATOUILLE “one of the best of the year’s films,” praising it as “a triumph of animation, comedy, imagination and, yes, humanity.” He does little to justify the praise, beyond citing the expressive animation (which is indeed one of the film’s tastier provisions).
In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan called the film “audacious’ (twice!) and insisted that “it takes risks and goes places other films wouldn’t dare, and it ends up putting rival imaginations in the shade.”
Presumably, Turan is referring to the rats-in-the-kitchen concept, but is there really much risk – or originality – in anthropomorphizing an animal into a cute talking critter that can do the unexpected? Is a cooking rat that much more imaginative than Toonces the Driving Cat? At least Saturday Night Live had the wit to imagine that Toonces might be a bad driver. RATATOUILLE writer-director Brad Bird never even considers the possibility that Remy the Rat might be a bad cook – that would have been a real risk, trying to celebrate the drive and desire of a would-be artist lacking talent (a la ED WOOD).
A little more articulate is Salon.com’s Stephanie Zacharek, who notes that Brad Bird “doesn’t set out to wow us. His colors are never garish; his characters are always written, fleshed out, not just storyboarded; and his ideas, while easy enough to grasp, stretch beyond the typical homilies of being true to oneself, or of asserting that everyone is special. In fact, Bird’s pictures […] recognize that the development of potential (and not just mindless praise of the raw, unshaped material in all of us) is what’s important.”
Zacharek nails Bird’s strength: Whereas second-rate CGI films like BEE MOVIE are content to continually hurl digital cream pies in our face, hoping the cream filling will hide the bland taste of the under-cooked main dish, RATATOUILLE is like a carefully balanced seven-course meal. Brad Bird is not above resorting to the equivalent of a slap-stick pie fight (Alfredo’s contortions while hidden rat Remy scuttles beneath his clothes wear out their welcome), but overall this frothy frosting is used like a decoration carefully applied to a scrumptious cake.
Where Zacharek goes wrong is in suggesting that RATATOUILLE is about the “development of potential.” To be fair, I believe the film has its heart in the right place; it wants to present a meritocracy wherein someone’s achievement is based on their hard work and dedication, not their legacy (George W. would never have made it to the presidency in this animated world). Unfortunately, the demands of popular entertainment force RATATOUILLE into a dramatic structure somewhat at odds with the theme. In fact, the film is a fairly traditional story about someone who is born special and struggles to get others to see his meritorious nature.
Remy is a rat who likes good food, not garbage. Dad thinks his son should resign himself to being a rat, but Remy follows his dream, which leads him to become a cook in a French restaurant. Of course, no one will accept a rat in the kitchen, so Remy hides beneath the toque of a clumsy goof named Alfredo Linguini. At no point is it suggested that Remy has anything to learn or any personal growth to make before becoming a great chef. His greatness is simply assumed. His true quest is to gain acknowledgement.
That is not a very big pan in which to cook up an interesting story. Consequently, the script relies on side dishes and appetizers to fill out the menu. Alfredo turns out to be the son of Gusteau, the late owner of the restaurant. Alfredo’s mom, for reasons unexplained, never told her son the truth about his parentage, but she did impart the information in a letter to Skinner, the restaurant’s new owner. Skinner keeps the information secret (the script presents this as villainy on his part, although he appears to be following the wishes of Alfredo’s mother). This creates a subplot (and a nice chase scene) in which Remy steals the letter and brings it to Alfredo. Fun stuff, but largely irrelevant to the movie’s oft-stated theme: “Anyone can cook.”
Later, to keep the story simmering with some kind of surprise, Alfredo and Remy have a falling-out that makes no sense. Up until Alfredo gains control of the restaurant, Remy wisely prevents him from telling the truth about where his cooking skills truly originate. Suddenly, and for no obvious reason, Remy becomes resentful that Alfredo is getting all the credit. Does Remy really expect Alfredo to put himself out of business by announcing at a press conference that a rat is running the kitchen?
A disappointed Remy rejoins his Dad, who tries to illustrate the unworthiness of humans by showing him a storefront window full of dead rats in traps (what kind of store is this, exactly?) Why should Remy need this lesson, when the opening sequences have shown his personal experience with human attempts at ratricide? The scene simply fills up a little screen time, hitting an obvious emotional note while Remy is feeling down. But Remy’s emotional state is clearly temporary, a minor setback, not a life altering crisis. With plot conflicts as mild as these, it is no great dramatic catharsis when they are resolved. Alfredo apologizes to Remy; in a nod to family values, Remy’s Dad decides to help his son fulfill his dreams. As Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker, “All too easy.”
This light-hearted, almost frivolous approach, yields a film as sweet as a delicate souffle, but it is not filling. Stretching the culinary metaphor to the limit, one might say RATATOUILLE lacks the nutritional value of a truly satisfying meal. Only near the end does it serve up something meatier, a conclusion that comes close to warranting the accolades.
Stephanie Zacharek describes the sequence perfectly, so I will allow her to do the honors:
Near the end of the picture, Ego has a speech that begins with a statement about the uselessness of critics, about the way they live for the experience of slapping things down instead of creating anything worthwhile themselves. The speech winds its way around to a more complicated revelation, about the importance of finding beauty and wonder in unexpected corners of our world. [….]
[…] for me — a person who writes about movies but doesn’t make them — Ego’s speech rings completely true, and I can’t read it as Bird’s way of cutting down critics, of painting them as evil creatures who must be reformed. If anything, I wonder if he doesn’t feel a kinship with them. Criticism, done right, isn’t about destruction; it’s about the pursuit of pleasure and delight and surprise, the seeking of both sensation and meaning, and sharing it with as many people as you can.
This is the one point in the film where RATATOUILLE says something more interesting than “follow your dream.” Food critic Anton Ego (whose nickname is “The Grim Eater”) is portrayed as a comically grim villain throughout most of the film: the reels of ribbon in his typewriter suggest the eye sockets of a skull; his room, seen from above, is in the octagonal shape of a coffin; in fact his pale appearance and gaunt aspect suggest the living dead.
Yet, for all the fun poked at Ego, Bird ultimately presents the food critic as someone whose good opinion is worth having, and there is even a hint (never stated overtly) that the challenge he presents to Remy and Alfredo motivates them to take risks and achieve greatness that might otherwise have eluded them. Perhaps the film’s greatest single moment occurs when their unexpected culinary masterpiece, a dish of simple ratatouille, not only turns the Grim Eater’s frown upside down but also mentally transports him back to his childhood. It’s a wonderful example of how visual imagery can be more than empty flash; it can convey emotions with a poignancy that mere words fail to emulate.
No movie, having achieved this, deserves anything less than high praise. However, that praise should be tempered with a little perspective. And since no one else in the bloody town is willing to offer it, I have. RATATOUILLE is like a restaurant that serves a good main course, but the exquisite desert leaves you feeling that you have enjoyed one of the great culinary experiences of your life.
Walt Disney’s DVD presents the film in a lovely widescreen transfer, with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX and Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles. To maximize the viewing experience, the disc provides an Audio-Visual set up, with a series of steps to adjust brightness, aspect ratio, color, etc.
Like too many DVDs, RATATOUILLE launches with series of promotional clips and trailers for upcoming feature films and DVDs, including Pixar’s upcoming WALL E. The trailers are nice, but they go on too long.
The DVD menus, like the film’s closing credits, are done in a 2D style of animation that resembles old DePatie-Freleng cartoons.
Besides the film, the disc contains some Bonus Features and two short subjects. The first short, “Lifted,” is a sci-fi spoof of SIGNS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: an alien student driver has difficulty passing the test of levitating a human out the window and into the mother ship.
The second short subject, “Your Friend, The Rat,” is a funny pseudo-documentary hosted by Remy and his brother. Using animation and some film clips, it actually does provide some accurate information about the rodent world. It ends with a hysterically funny disclaimer undermining Remy’s attempts to improve the image of his rat brethren.
Bonus Features include Deleted Scenes and a video featurette. “Fine Food and Film: A Conversation with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller” uses alternating interview clips of filmmaker Bird and restaurateur Keller (a consultant on the film) as parallel artists. It’s an interesting concept but a trifle dull in execution, offering few insights to convince us of its central thesis.
The Deleted Scenes are actually “Abandoned Scenes” – that is, scenes that were scripted but abandoned before being completed. They are presented with a combination of storyboards, rough animation, and temp audio tracks, accompanied by music lifted from the finished film. The first two are sandwiched with video segments of Bird explaining why they were dropped from the film; the third is introduced by producer Brad Lewis and story writer Jim Capobianco.
- “Chez Gusteau” is a single-take (a la the opening of TOUCH OF EVIL) that takes us from the streets of Paris, into the restaurant, and through the kitchen, winding up on a shot of Remy looking down through the skylight. Brid dropped the shot because he felt the introduction to Chez Gusteau should be seen from Remy’s point of view. (The opening animation of the DVD menu plays like a condensed version of this shot.)
- “Meet Gusteau” is from an earlier draft of the screenplay, which had Chef Gusteau still alive. (In the finished film, Gusteau is dead, appearing only as Remy’s imaginary friend.) It features Gusteau talking with Skinner about the series of name-brand fast-food products that have degraded the Gusteau name. Some of the basic ideas found their way into the revised screenplay, particularly the concept that Alfredo’s toque is translucent, so that Remy can see out when he is hiding on Alfredo’s head. The scene was cut for length.
- “First Day” is an earlier version of Alfredo’s first day at work. The basic idea of Remy’s cooking skill saving Alfredo from termination, remains in the finished film, but in this version, Remy hides not under the toque on Alfredo’s head but in a drawer. The story-boarded action seems awkward, with Alfredo continually putting his soup ladle in the drawer so that Remy can sample and improve it.
RATATOUILLE (2007). Directed by Brad Bird; co directed by Jan Pinkava. Screenplay by Brad Bird; story by Bird, Jim Capobianco, Jan Pinkava; addtional story material by Emily Cook, Kathy Greensberg, Bob Peterson. Voices: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett, James Remar.
*NOTE: Technically, “Cascade Effect” is a term used in scientific and statistical analysis that studies the impact of castrophic events (whose fall-out creates other catastrophic events, which in turn…etc.). When talking about shared beliefs, “Availability Cascade” is the more proper term, but I have used the two somewhat interchangeably here, for the sake of verbal variety.