Despite Pixar's reputation (and Brad Bird's reputation specifically) for excellence, I avoided Ratatouille in theaters because...well, it has rats in it. A lot of rats in it. Crawling all over people's food. Sounds like a recipe for a horror movie, but like I said, this is Pixar and Brad Bird. Combine the two, and they can do ANYTHING. And here's they've taken what is on the face of it a horrible concept -- rat helps man cook -- and made another masterpiece of a movie out of it. So why was I so surprised? Well, this movie is all about surprising you and making you look past your expectations. Talking about a movie full of surprises necessitates a lot of spoilers so – SPOILER ALERT!
Remy is a classic character, like the coal miner's son who wants to be a poet, but a rat. The interplay between young dreamer Remy and his practical, clan-oriented father is spot-on and well-dialoged. The rest of the rats seem to just be there for comic relief, but these two shine as real characters. When Remy starts meeting humans, you’d expect him to be able to talk to them. Not that it makes sense for a rat to be able to talk, but because it makes it easier for the storyteller. Lazy writers condition us to be lazy viewers and accept things like this so the story can move along faster, but this movie does not take the easy way (with two exceptions. Remy has to be able to understand French – vital to the whole movie is that the two are able to communicate somehow -- and Remy is able to control Linguini’s limbs by simply pulling his hair. Deleted scenes show Remy running down Linguini’s arms inside his sleeves and moving his hands from underneath, which would have been more believable, but this is simpler and allows for puppeteer metaphors that are exploited for humor in the dialog).
If the movie has a wrong note at all, it is the love interest sub-plot. That Linguini and Colette are linked together romantically at all feels tacked on and artificial to me. It would make more sense if she were playing him to find out his secrets, but that would have introduced another subplot entirely, and it wouldn’t look “right” for the only important female character to be unsympathetic. And Colette is a surprisingly sympathetic character. Colette starts off looking like a typical Disney anti-stereotype, all anger and sass, like Meg from Hercules. But we wind up seeing her getting some of the most important moments in the movie. We’re introduced to her character flaw early on -- that she idolizes Gusteau’s appreciation for “the new,” but she does not feel ready to embrace “the new” herself. The movie pauses every time Colette is forced to deal with something new. In this sense, the movie is almost more about Colette than Remy. Remy’s epiphany, that he already knows who he is and should stop feeling torn between two worlds, is rather obvious and told to us by Remy’s imaginary companion, Gusteau’s “ghost.” But we watch Colette struggle towards her epiphanies, first when she has to choose between accepting Linguini’s (accidental) advances or macing him, then when she has to choose between slapping Linguini or simply walking out on him (the agony on her face is amazing considering she’s just a drawing!), and ultimately when she has to decide if she really believes in what Gusteau stood for.
Linguini, a comic klutz, surprises us too. I didn’t know how he would wind up not killing Remy when they first meet, as that was what he’d been told to do. But when it happened, it was so obvious – Linguini just started talking about his problems in front of Remy. For a klutz, Linguini is remarkably self-aware and an excellent friend to Remy. That’s one of the things this movie does – it presents you with character after character that surprises you when it makes you care about them. You care about Remy, despite him being an (ugh) rat. You care about Linguini because he is so good to Remy. You care about Colette because she is growing as a person before our eyes. You care about Gusteau’s legacy, even though we never really meet the character except on TV or in Remy’s imagination. And then there’s Anton Ego, the restaurant critic who is presented to us in a way that signals “this is the main bad guy” to our lazy viewer expectations. We’re led to expect this through the whole movie until the moment when Anton has HIS epiphany that leads him back to his childhood and how food really mattered to him as an expression of motherly love – and suddenly you care about Anton in a way that’s making me misty-eyed just typing this! And, like Colette, it’s all wordless! You just see these amazing epiphanies happen before your eyes and you see more truths laid bare before you than most live action movies are capable of doing.
The other thing this movie does so well is surprising you with situations where you don’t know where the movie is going to take you next, yet makes it look perfectly natural when it takes you there. Just over halfway through the movie, it’s reached a sort of equilibrium where Linguini and Remy are working well together and everything could have ended at that point semi-happily and you wonder where the movie will go for the rest of it – and then Remy finds the will, Remy is found by Skinner, and a fantastic chase scene elevates the whole movie to a new level for the final third. Skinner’s comeuppance, coupled with the unfortunate but comedic imprisonment of the health inspector, could easily have been glossed over in a lazy movie, but these actions have real consequences here. Of course they would, but we’re not used to seeing realistic consequences when they run against the heroes in a comedy. And yet, that’s just the twist ending that we get here – that the happy ending is entirely different than what we were expecting. Gusteau’s restaurant isn’t saved, just the people. Since the main theme of the movie is embracing something “new” (which isn’t really about cooking, but about challenging your preconceptions about other people; just like Remy isn’t really about being a rat, but about being a person who’s different from us), of course it doesn’t end with everyone embracing the “old” restaurant, but – again – we are caught off guard by our own preconceptions. A deleted scene would have introduced us to the old restaurant, coldly opulent, filled with unhappy-looking rich people, with a long zoom in which would have contrasted the long zoom out at the end through the warm, friendly bistro filled with happy-looking proletariats (both human and rats). These bookend scenes would have shown us how everyone has grown and been transformed by movie’s end, but the first scene might have foreshadowed too much – that there was something wrong with the “old” restaurant that we don’t see until the end, and then that too seems obvious.
And there is so much else to recommend! Little things, like our first view of Linguini being seen through the fire from a flambé dish, foreshadowing that his arrival at the kitchen is going to be his baptism of fire. And the fact that all the celebrities providing voices are not using their normal voices. As if they were not hired for who they are, but what their voices brought to the role. I didn’t recognize anyone, not even Peter O’Toole, while I watched the movie, but I wouldn’t have replaced a single one of them. For a movie with so little room for improvement, I give it an enthusiastic A+.