I don’t want to eat garbage, Dad!
— Remy the Rat (Patton Oswalt)
If you think of children’s films in terms of food, there’s a lot of junk out there. No longer designed just for kids, animated adventure films have become bland pop culture mash-ups, aimed at ticket-buying Gen X parents with phoned-in celebrity voices and ironic jokery. The results are less like kids’ flicks and more like snarky VH-1 programming, only with CGI talking animals instead of Michael Ian Black.
Contrary to recent trends, Ratatouille is, in a word, zesty. The plot follows Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat with provincial roots and excellent olfactory senses. So excellent, his family designates Remy as “poison checker,” the rodent equivalent of a monotonous factory job, as food morsel after food morsel is passed under his nose for inspection. But Remy loves food, really, and so he decides to leave his family to become a chef in Paris, at the urging of his culinary idol Gusteau (Brad Barrett), the deceased world-renowned chef, who often appears to Remy as a friendly apparition. Though he must deal with his physical limitations (no opposable thumb, etc), Remy has a gift and a dream, and so he follows it. After all, Gusteau’s motto was, “Anyone can cook.”
But Remy isn’t just anyone; he’s a rat. And unlike other kids’ films of late, his world doesn’t magically come alive when humans aren’t looking, or comment from a distance on kooky human behavior. Instead, Ratatouille, directed by The Incredibles‘ Brad Bird, shows how the two worlds — humans and rats — affect each other. Living in city sewers and risking death or entrapment every time he forages for food, Remy understands his dilemma: “I’m a rat, so life is hard.” That Remy, unlike the rest of his family, prefers triple crème brie to trash-can botulism just makes it harder.
Remy’s big break into the good life comes in the form of a dimwitted garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), who gets the credit when Remy cooks up some lip-smacking soup at Gusteau’s bistro, now run by Chef Skinner (Ian Holm). Diminutive and pencil-mustached, Skinner has desecrated the great chef’s legacy by approving a new line of frozen microwave meals that depict Gusteau in sombreros, samurai gear, and cowboy hats. Skinner also takes to chasing after Remy with knives, plainly rejecting Gusteau’s motto. When the humble and untrained Linguini begins preparing delectable dishes nightly (with Remy’s Cyrano De Bergerac-style assistance), Skinner is skeptical. His suspicions are partly fueled by old-fashioned jealousy, but also by the fact that children’s films need clearly delineated villains, and Skinner is exactly that. There is as much Cruella DeVille in Skinner as there is Jiminy Cricket in Gusteau, underscoring Ratatouille‘s affection for old-school Disney.
Equally old-school is the relationship that develops between Linguini and the bistro’s meat and poultry chef, Colette (Janeane Garofalo). Sporting a severe black bob and a bad attitude, Colette initially regards Linguini as just another of Skinner’s sycophantic underlings, dismissing him as a peer and love interest. But as Remy directs Linguini’s cooking (hidden beneath his chef’s hat, using tufts of hair like marionette strings), she’s captivated by his herky-jerky, “strangely involuntary” movements. She can’t help herself: after all, she explains, she’s French.
Like Garafalo’s thick-accented Colette, many of the film’s celebrity voices are virtually unrecognizable, again recalling Disney’s hey-day, when characters were not fitted to the stars voicing them. The exuberant voice performances in Ratatouille immerse the audience in its world, one enhanced by richly-colored, sophisticated animation and Michael Giacchino’s score, a lively grab-bag of French jazz and Italian big-band orchestrations.
The film’s various delights are neatly framed by resident food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole). Obtuse, prissy, and dressed in black, Ego embodies all the stereotypical attributes of a critic, just waiting to deliver his jaded judgment. Ego is unpleasant and unhappy, but not, like Skinner, inherently evil. After a short diatribe on the interrelationship of criticism and artistry — in which he submits that his profession is parasitic and pretentious — Ego encounters Remy’s version of the film’s titular dish. It jolts him back to an idyllic boyhood, spent in his mother’s kitchen, before his mouth was permanently down-turned, before he gave in to cynicism. The film might perform the same service for its consumers.