Ratatouille | Revealing the Outsider's Magical Cuisine
Ratatouille is an animated movie directed by Brad Bird and co-directed by Jan Pinkava. It is produced by Pixar Animation Studios and was released in 2007 by Walt Disney Pictures. The movie’s title hints at the main character and his pinnacle achievement. Indeed, it is a pun between the word ‘rat’ in French and the famous dish of stewed mixed vegetables. The movie is a comedy full of funny and out-of-the-box situations, with brilliant dialogues and charismatic characters. It is an ode to the culinary industry that results in a fairy tale in which rats can walk…and even cook.
The production team was excited to set the story in Paris and conveyed a romantic and dreamy depiction of the City of Lights. Interestingly, Brad Bird and his team made the artistic choice to dim the lights in their depiction of Paris. Production designer Harley Jessup coordinated with cinematographer and lighting director Sharon Calahan to determine the absence of light in Ratatouille. The lighting is not entirely absent but only sparse and calculated. As a result, light is even more appreciated and treasured in the highlights illuminating the dark scenes. Jessup claimed that he was inspired by the treatment of diffused light and subtle colors in the shadow areas in Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner.
This lighthearted and aesthetically pleasing movie ended up moving both the public and critics. Proving this, Ratatouille won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 80th Academy Awards.
Anyone can cook
Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a young rat with a natural talent for cooking and a big dream of becoming a chef. Suddenly Remy, separated from his colony, ends up in Paris, right in the kitchen of his idol’s restaurant: chef Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett, and inspired by the figure of Bernard Loiseau). Here Remy befriends the shy and awkward kitchen boy Alfredo Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano). The two, thanks to Remy’s incredible talents, will embark on a formative journey through the stove in an attempt to prove and affirm their worth in the kitchen of the fine Parisian restaurant and impress the fearsome food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole).
Remy and Alfredo’s story is about mutual trust and deep immersion in one’s passion. Their adventures in the heart of Paris propel them to rise up in the face of rejection and even threats. Moreover, rats are a dreaded pestilence in the kitchen for sanitary reasons. It is actually quite disgusting for a sewer creature to prepare food for humans. However, thanks to his talent for cooking, Remy strives to transcend common fear and prejudice. After all, the animation format serves as a medium for unconventional or even unthinkable storytelling.
Otherwise, there are few other instances of mice in animation stories playing the role of the outcast. Rodents generally represent the small and chastened, but they often turn out to be smarter than the hunters. Such as in the Tom and Jerry cartoon series, in which Jerry Mouse is always hunted down by Tom Cat. Even Speedy Gonzales in the Looney Tunes cartoons is often able to outwit the traps set by Sylvester the Cat or Daffy Duck.
The head and the tail
The story follows the two protagonists through two distinct, indeed almost opposite spaces. On the one hand, the sewers inhabited by rats. On the other, the most luxurious restaurant in Paris, occupied by humans. The colorscript translates this opposition. Visually, the sewers are bathed in blue and purple colors, conveying a cold atmosphere. The rats are surrounded by water and move in the darkness. Conversely, for the restaurant, the artists used a warm palette with ochre and red hues. The elements of fire and wood dominate the kitchen and dining room scenes.
These universes could not be more different, yet they are very much connected. The very existence of the restaurants entails the survival of scavengers. They are two ends of the same living organism: the restaurant is the head, and the rats are the tail. Moreover, both share a common structure and order. Rodents act like thieves, but they obey the clan chief. In the noisy kitchen, it is the pirates who cook and thrive under the pressure of a strict hierarchy.
Remy, being a rat, cooperates with Alfredo in order to enter the forbidden world. In return, Alfredo gets a job and spends time with Colette (voiced by Janeane Garofalo). Remy handles the food through Alfredo, pulling the hair of his head like a puppeteer pulls the strings of a marionette. The body animation of Alfredo was meant to translate this weird dysfunction. Indeed, his movements are unpredictable and his pace is unnatural. Therefore, the viewer perceives that he is not in full control of his body.
The critic as a middleman
Food critic Anton Ego serves as the guardian of the temple between the two worlds. He ruthlessly decides who can pass the gates. The finest dining places fear his final judgment. Indeed, his final words caused Auguste Gusteau to lose a star and die of a broken heart. With his tall figure, pale skin, and dark circles under his eyes, he looks like the grim reaper. However, Anton Ego is not a real monster and he does not remain insensitive to genuine talent.
Remy succeeds in piercing the dark veil with a surprise dish. Indeed, Remy melts Anton’s icy heart with his ratatouille. This is a peasant dish originally from the south of France, made up of various vegetables simmered for a long time. For Ego, ratatouille is like the “Madeleine de Proust“ that triggers long-forgotten memories. With the first bite, indeed, he remembered his mother preparing this dish to comfort him. Food preparations encapsulate a special kind of magic that connects to ancestors and their land. The recipes, after all, hold precious knowledge passed down through generations. And with each new individual, a personal touch completes and twists a story told and retold.
Remy’s skills were powerful enough to transform Ego and bring him out of his lethargy. Therefore, Ego listened to his inner gut and felt the passion in Remy’s food. With a renewed sense of duty as a critic, Anton Ego decides to break with the fixed prejudices of established opinion. He thus realizes that his role is to defend new talents who need new friends.
The scene of Anton Ego tasting ratatouille expresses the power of food. Indeed, Le Cordon Bleu lists it among the 10 most iconic food scenes in movies.
The art of making food
How can I describe it? Good food is like music you can taste, color you can smell. There is excellence all around you. You need only be aware to stop and savor it.Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), Ratatouille
The making of food visuals is another unique challenge. The team of artists needs to bring a delicious appearance to the dishes so that the viewer can relate to the effervescence of gastronomy. Because smells and tastes cannot yet be conveyed on television, the visual artists need to work twice to make the dishes look appetizing.
The work on the food depiction in Ratatouille recalls that of Hayao Miyazaki. For example, in Ponyo (2008) there are plenty of scenes of comforting bowls of ramen. In Studio Ghibli animation, food often helps create delicate, slow, and cozy scenes; in Ratatouille, cooking also becomes something grandiose with plenty of risks to take.
Ratatouille is not just about the journey of an outsider full of ambition who eventually pierces through. Rather, it is about understanding the other and their universe. The story shows compassion for those who are persecuted, like the rats, or neglected, like the kitchen help. Remy shows the viewer what it feels like to step into someone else’s shoes. While Alfredo shows how it is possible to remain humble and be a good team player and Ego shows how to take a leap of faith and lend a hand to strangers.