Much Depends on Dinner
Ah, Remy, rat of my heart! Tiny rodent who is my soul mate! Je t’aime! Je t’aime!
Oh, but there is joy in this movie, this Ratatouille, this new marvel from Pixar and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant), whose babies I want to have, he’s so brilliant. Not easy joy: hard-won joy, the best kind, which comes from struggle and pain and sacrifice and almost losing what you desire most. It fills you up, this wonderful, wonderful movie, with just the simple yet profound connection it’s possible to make with another creature, even if that creature is merely a cartoon rat. (And the question is, then, If we can understand a rat, why can’t we at least get along with other humans? There is no answer here, but the question lingers…)
Of course, I like rats. I respect them. Your mileage may vary. I think of them as smart little things just trying to make a living at the periphery of human endeavors. Probably most rats fancy rat society the center of the world — why wouldn’t they? But Remy, sweet, sensitive, smart Remy… he likes humans, isn’t generally afraid of us, and he prefers to eat our food before it’s been discarded as so many inedible scraps, even if — as the film opens — this propensity is the cause of major trouble. “The key, my friend, is not to be picky,” opines Remy’s doltish brother on the subject of happiness, particularly as it relates to food that comes out of a garbage can. But no, Remy is picky: he doesn’t know how else to be. He can’t settle. And I rejoice to see suchness this summer, when one of the biggest and most celebrated movies of the season is all about the dubious “pleasures” of settling for just-about-okay. Remy’s heart yearns for much more.
And so he finds himself at the once-world-famous five-star Paris restaurant of master chef Gusteau, which has seen a decline since the death of its owner and chef. Remy’s arrival is entirely accidental, if initially delightful to him, and his inclination is to escape, even as the ghost of Gusteau (the voice of Brad Garrett: Night at the Museum, The Pacifier), a mere figment of Remy’s imagination, prompts him to stick around and check out the action. “Anyone can cook” was Gusteau’s famous motto, but Remy knows the score, knows that rats are the least welcome beings in a human kitchen.
He is not wanted, and yet he is drawn. This crushing, touching dilemma is at the heart of Remy’s charm and loveliness. He truly is one of the most exquisite characters I’ve ever seen on film, either live-action or animated. Though the fact that he is an animated creation is part and parcel of his irresistible appeal. It’s not just that he wouldn’t exist without the miracle of modern animation, which captures his ratty expressiveness so beautifully: there’s one moment in which Remy and the movie and the audience holds its breath waiting to see whether the rat will be accepted in Gusteau’s kitchen, and this little cartoon rodent comes near to breaking your heart through the tiniest of gestures, his little rat hands gripping the human hand in which he rests with such hope and anxiety that it becomes one of the best examples ever of contemporary animators being the vital “actors” for cartoon characters, at least as much as the talent who supplies the character’s voice is. (Standup comic Patton Oswalt [Blade: Trinity, Taxi] is Remy’s voice here, and he’s perfect.) It’s that Remy is such a splendid fantasy of meeting an alien intelligence right here in the mundane, ordinary world. Like if you have the sneaking suspicion, as I do, that if we could talk to elephants or dolphins or maybe rats, they might have something perceptive and unexpected to say about life, the universe, and everything.
Remy has much to say to Linguini, the garbage boy in Gusteau’s kitchen with whom he teams up to produce some marvelous dishes. (Here’s Bird’s genius at work again: Linguini is voiced by a Pixar production designer, Lou Romano. Romano initially laid down a temporary vocal track for the animators to work from, but Bird decided he was Linguini, and so he was, and the fact that he was not a name actor be damned. Perhaps the fact that Bird has other names — including those of Ian Holm, John Ratzenberger, Brian Dennehy, and Janeane Garofalo — to work with here allowed him to get away with that.) Remy’s culinary brilliance directs Linguini’s body in the chopping, stirring, and seasoning of many a meal that you wish you could launch yourself into the movie to sample, including the title dish, the “peasant meal” that captures the imagination of the villainous restaurant critic Anton Ego (the voice of Peter O’Toole: Venus, Casanova).
And it’s in that moment, when Ego tastes Remy’s ratatouille for the first time, that it all sails into a wondrousness so superb and soaring that it ranks among the most satisfying of cinematic experiences. Ego is not quite what we’ve estimated him to be… and Ratatouille the movie satisfies by refusing to surrender to easy, expected ends, and by acknowledging that “winning” is what you make of it.
I mean, he’s a rat… and he cooks… and he dreams of being a five-star chef. How much more wonderful audacity do you need before you fall in love?
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2007
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