The production of a great film has much in common with the preparation of great food. To the creators of both, all that appears to be required are fresh ingredients, a sense of vision, and skilled technique. Born in either the restaurant kitchen or the movie studio, both pass through many hands, each adding what they know best. Eventually, food and film are put before the public and the all-powerful critics separate the merely everyday from great art.
The creators of the new Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille clearly have this parallel on their minds. Ratatouille is the story of the interaction of two characters: Alfredo Linguini, a garbage boy and prep cook, and Remy, a rat who aspires to become a gourmet chef. Together, they forge an unlikely partnership in the kitchen of a once-five-star Parisian restaurant, Gusteau’s, whose owner often proclaimed “anyone can cook!”. Along the way, they encounter both enemies (like Skinner, Gusteau’s head chef) and allies (like Colette, a meat and poultry chef, and Gusteau’s ghost, a figment of Remy’s imagination.) Finally however, they must submit the product of their partnership to the omnipotent food critic Anton Ego, and only then can their combined fate truly be decided.
Seeing that adventure unfold does create some very compelling film-making. As with previous Pixar films, great attention is paid to the development of richly textured characters. In Ratatouille, these are the rats, Remy, his father Django, and his brother Emile. There is also breath-taking animation. A rat’s-eye view of a chase through a kitchen turns out to be an incredible exercise in point-view; even ordinary objects take on eye-popping characteristics when seen from the side and the bottom by a creature only inches tall. In many, many areas the film is a great success.
Classically, there have been several successful models for human/talking-animal interaction in animated films and shorts. In the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons, humans and animals all talk with and at each other without as much as a second thought. For MGM’s Tom & Jerry, the original concept was that humans were just humans, and animals just animals (though Jerry walked upright). Those boundaries got blurred over the years, but generally even when animals talked or acted like humans, it was when humans weren’t around or in view. That helped preserve the magic that kept the audience spellbound.
How Ratatouille treats this subject is the source of one of the film’s biggest failures. No one set of rules seems to apply to all the characters in the film. Rats can generally talk to other rats, and live in communities that resemble those of humans in many ways. Otherwise, the film seems to exist in the very normal world, where the lives of animals and humans remain separate. Remy is the exception. He cannot speak to humans, but can somehow understand humans and read human language for reasons that are never explained. He is a rat that somehow singlehandedly breaks down the barrier between humans and rats, and to me, that doesn’t make sense. It seems that there should be another way where humans and rats could exist under more internally consistent sets of rules, if the film makers chose to look for it. Watching the film, I kept wishing that they did keep looking.
The film also suffers from an odd sense of pace. The plot unfolds at a very uneven rate. There are short periods where many things seem to happen all at once. These are separated by long plateaus where little, if anything, seems to happen at all. This uneven sense of development is especially apparent in the last 30 minutes of the film. The plot ends up in a place that I could not really have predicted. While that is often the trademark of excellent movie making, it is only an asset when the pace of the film lets the audience follow along. The pace of Ratatouille seems to get in the way of the film’s ending.
This merely makes Ratatouille a (very) good film, not a great film. There is a lot to enjoy about it. It is both very pleasing to the eye and careful to create characters with substance and depth. I hope that the general public will be amazed, enthralled, and entertained when it comes out on June 29th. I did not leave the theater after Ratatouille with the same sense of magic that I felt after seeing The Incredibles, but it came close.