Monday, September 7, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Ratatouille

5 Stars

I first encountered Rataouille a few years ago. I came upon the film already in progress and watched 45 minutes to an hour of it before I had to leave. That hour of film captured my imagination. I have often recounted discovering this beautiful, oddly specific, and deeply affecting film about a rat who wants to be a chef entirely by accident. Ratatouille is a fantastic film. I’m so very glad that I’ve finally had the chance to see it all the way through.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat, but he is unlike all the other rats in his family and his clan. He has an excellent sense of smell, able to detect individual ingredients or poisons in food with a single sniff, and he's also got a taste for fine French cuisine. Against the advice of his family and friends, Remy begins to spend time in human kitchens where he encounters the commercials and cook books of the great, recently deceased, French Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). Gusteau’s motto is “Anyone can cook,” and Remy takes this to heart. After a disaster separates him from his clan, he travels to Paris, finds his way to Gusteau’s restaurant, and forges an unlikely friendship with Linguini (Lou Romano), a young garbage boy. By working together, Remy and Linguini become a renowned chef and catch the eye and the ire of Paris’ most discerning food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole). Impressing Ego tests not only their ability to cook, but their very ability to maintain their friendship.

Where should I begin to praise this movie? To begin with, it looks fantastic. The animation is wonderful. Whether Pixar is creating the squalor of a rats' nest, the hectic bustle of a kitchen, the busy streets, or the beautiful vistas of Paris Ratatouille does it in just the right way. When characters are running for their lives, Ratatouille is exactly the right mix of exciting and amusing. The scenes in kitchens make me hungry, and the scenes where Remy and Linguini learn to communicate with one another and work together are both tender and funny. They ultimately settle on an arrangement where Remy sits on Linguini’s head beneath his chef’s hat and controls Linguini’s actions by pulling on various clumps of his hair. Ratatouille takes full advantage of this by turning Linguini into a human sized marionette to capitalize on the opportunities for physical comedy.

Ratatouille’s characters are so physically expressive that it would almost work as a silent film. That said, I don’t think that I can overstate the contributions of the talented voice work or Michael Giacchino’s score. Patton Oswalt has emerged in the last decade as a sort of Nerd prophet, appearing in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and delivering a nine minute “100% improvised” Star Wars-MCU-Clash of the Titans crossover pitch on Parks and Recreation. Oswalt’s nerd-prophet routine has obscured the second aspect of his last decade, where he has delivered deeply touching and sympathetic performances in unexpected places like Young Adult and here in Ratatouille. Oswalt invests Remy’s love of food and desire to be a chef with the same nerd-prophet enthusiasm. He dives deep, describing cheese and grapes in rhapsodic verse, his voice rising to a crescendo and increasing in pace until Remy swallows his food and collapses breathless from the experience of taste. Oswalt’s performance is nicely complemented by the melodious, villainous, purr of Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego who is just the right flavor of comically threatening. And every single scene in Ratatouille is brought even more to life by Giacchino’s score, cribbing from jazz, baroque, and even traditional Fench evening songs, Giacchino’s score is a celebration of all the flavors of music he can bring to your ear.

Like The Incredibles, Ratatouille is directed by Brad Bird. Also, like The Incredibles, I detect Brad Bird’s politics in Ratatouille. Remy has a motto: “A Chef Makes, A Thief Takes,” and Remy exhorts himself to “be a maker, not a taker.” However, unlike The Incredibles Remy mostly engages in this talk in a dialogue with the imaginary ghost of Chef Gusteau. He is using these mantras to convince himself to be the best version of himself. The heroes of The Incredibles spent a lot of time using libertarian/objectivist rhetoric to complain about "ordinary people" rather than improve themselves. As a result, I’m far more comfortable with Bird’s philosophy leaking into his script in Ratatouille. It seems much less self-serving.

I also really appreciated how generous Ratatouille was to its characters. Anton Ego could have been a one note villain, but Ratatouille provides him with a back story and a shocking amount of grace in the final reel.

Ratatouille is not the film I would have selected off the menu at my local multiplex. That said, having discovered it by accident and examined it in more detail, I’m happy to report that Ratatouille is a sweet and satisfying cinematic dish. Don’t take my word for it, open up that dusty bottle of Mourvedre you’ve been saving and give Ratatouille a taste.

Ratatouille finds itself on this list because it was chosen as one of the best movies of the 2000s by at least four critics, but never named number one. If you’re watching along with me on this tour of the 2000s, I’m going to skip the next two films on my list, In the Mood for Love and Cache, and watch 25th Hour next. 25th Hour, like Ratatouille, was named one of the best films of the decade by four critics, and never at number one. In the Mood for Love and Cache were likewise selected by four critics, but each of those films was also named the number one film by at least one critic.

From Out in the Void


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