The movie’s been out for a while now, and the verdict is already in regarding Pixar’s latest movie, Ratatouille. Critics and audience are proclaiming it a great animated masterpiece, possibly the best Pixar movie so far. For my money, that honour still goes to The Incredibles (also written and directed by Ratatouille creator Brad Bird). As much as the idea of a Parisian rat with the sensibilities of a gourmet is a humourous starting point, I think there were some missteps in Ratatouille that just leave it a little less-than-magnifique. Remy (voiced by King of Queens’s Patton Oswald) is a rat who’s different from all the other rats. He dreams of a life beyond the garbage-eating of his fellow rodent. Instead, he has been blessed with the genius of knowing just how to combine flavours in the perfectly-pleasing way. After circumstances carry him away from his rat family to the sewers of Paris, he fortuitously winds up at the restaurant once owned by his culinary inspiration, Chef Gusteau. Gusteau wrote a book based on the philosophy that “Anyone can cook”, which was never more true than when Remy befriends a lanky busboy named Linguini and turns him into the next big Parisian chef (Remy does the cooking while Linguini takes the credit). Entering the picture to help or hinder Linguini’s success are Colette (a feisty sous-chef love interest), their boss Skinner (a little ball of self-serving treachery in a chef’s hat), and Anton Ego (icy restaurant critic and food snob), all of whom are amazingly well animated by Pixar’s team. The characters have the look of caricatures come-to-life with expressive faces and gestures. (Remember the characters from The Incredibles? These guys are even more exaggerated.)
At first I thought I had issue with how the rats can understand human speech (which is supposed to be French, but comes out as American English, for the most part) so much so that they can even read cookbooks, etc. However, that seems to be the case in most Disney films that combine humans with intelligent animals, and it never really bothered me before. I think where this movie stumbled for me was in the shift from Remy’s story to Linguini’s story. Linguini tries to prove himself as a real chef, tries to show himself as a man of integrity to win fair Colette, and tries to fight off his own demons of insecurity and self-doubt. On top of that, there are a lot of other plot elements: not the least of which is Remy’s rat community (which also make it to Paris to reunite with him). There are identity issues for both main characters, Remy and Linguini: Do I belong? Will I succeed? Does anyone understand me? Can I live with a lie? Who is the real me? Can a rat be friends with a human? For a kids movie (or maybe even for an adult one) there is too much going on in the minds of these characters. The scenes start to fall over each other to cover the resolution to all these questions. In the midst of them there is also slapstick humour and scenes of charm and sweetness. Before you condemn me for over-analyzing a cartoon, this is one of those cartoons that is more dramatically complex than your average Disney fare. For the kids there are still cute, fun scenes, but by the squirmy boredom of the 4-year-old sitting next to me, I suspect they were too few. While the last Pixar movie, Cars, seemed too simplistic and idealistic, Ratatouille seems like it could have been two separate films: one for the kids and one for the grown-ups. Unfortunately, it fell short of being both at the same time. (4 out of 5)
What if I had made Ratatouille?
I would have kept the story about the rat, Remy, and his struggles to fit into the rat community while being true to his own desires as a gourmet. Without giving away the rest of the story of Ratatouille, I can easily see how it could have played out without shifting the focus over to Linguini. The animation is top-notch and there’s little that I would have done to change that. Paris looks warm and delicious, like a freshly-baked baguette. The rats are cute but still ratty enough not to be too human and mickey-mousified. Taking advantage of that, I might want to show more of the rat society. It’s hinted at briefly in the movie, but I’ll bet the creative minds involved could have expanded upon that even more. Finally, there was a tragic under-development of the other characters in Skinner’s kitchen. They seemed all primed as humourous character types, but we spent so little time with them that they hardly joined the ranks of the Disney character canon. (Granted, that would have been the wrong focus, since my movie looks closer at the rats, so I would probably have transformed some of those characters into rodents instead.)