Ratatouille Reminds Us What Art Can Do

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As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I couldn’t resist writing about a family movie that features food and offers a lot to be thankful for. Two of the things that my wife Taya and I enjoy the most are good stories and good food. In Ratatouille we got to enjoy both – and with our kids, too!

I’ve been a big fan of Brad Bird since I reluctantly watched The Iron Giant to be a good dad. I both laughed (and even cried) harder than either of my boys at the time and it’s become a movie we’ve returned to again and again. Then of course came The Incredibles, which is arguably one of the best superhero movies ever.

When we started seeing ads for Ratatouille, I’ll confess I wasn’t that excited to see it, but my interest was piqued when I found out that Brad Bird was the wizard behind the curtain for the latest Pixar film. So we went to see it, and we weren’t disappointed.

What I love about Brad Bird is that he is able to make films that are both really “cool” and vulnerable at the same time. There is real heart to his stories, yet they never rely on sentimentality to play our emotions. The scenes from The Incredibles when Helen Parr suspects that her husband might be having an affair in his mid-life crisis were surprisingly tense and poignant. Even though the story was obviously fantastical, it all felt very rooted in reality to me. I didn’t expect an animated film to be this grown up.

I think the same is even truer of Ratatouille. The movie is an amorous love affair with fine food made for an audience who is more likely to ask for mac and cheese than they would baked brie with mango chutney.

It’s the story of a rat with a penchant for gourmet food and dreams of being a great chef. He’s got the gift, but as a rodent lacks, well, a certain quality of homo sapien-ness. He finds an unlikely ally in the kitchen of a once-vaunted restaurant in Paris. Perched under the hat of his human friend Linguini, Remy’s knack for cooking up delectable dishes reinvigorates the restaurant’s reputation – but what would Paris think if they knew a rat was calling the shots? The script is obviously clever and the animation is state of the art, so rather than comment on the story and style, I’d like to relate a couple scenes that I loved.

Every time the rat Remy would taste a certain food, the background would fade to black and there would be a play of color bursts behind him to visually represent Remy’s experience of taste. When he would combine that certain food with another the play of light and shapes would deepen in complexity, whirring and spinning and going off like a fireworks display. We laughed out loud with delight thinking, “yeah, that’s what that flavor looks like!” That Bird could so effectively communicate the sense of taste through visuals is a testament to his gift, and it’s one of my favorite things about Ratatouille.

But it was a scene towards the end of the movie that stole the whole show for me. When Anton Ego – the bitter, arrogant, and curmudgeonly food critic whose jaded reviews make or break restaurants – walks in, we know we’re in for Ratatouille’s equivalent of a showdown at high noon (only it’s dinner time, and instead of guns it’s a critic’s pen and a rat’s whisker – not that kind of whisker, but, y’know, the kind you whisk with ;-).

Remy puts together a simple serving of ratatouille, a traditional French Provençal stewed vegetable dish, and serves it to Anton Ego. With one taste, his eyes open wide in wonder-filled bewilderment as the camera zooms into his pupils and takes us deep into Ego’s past where we see him as a little child in a fond memory of his mother serving him ratatouille. The scene is genuinely tender, and when the camera zooms back out we see that the dish has awakened more than just a kindly childhood memory, but also the child himself long buried in Anton Ego. I didn’t see this coming, and this scene did for me something similar to what the ratatouille did for Ego. I was unexpectedly moved to tears and a real sense of wonder and joy came over me. This is why:

I know this isn’t necessarily what the movie is about, but in this moment Ratatouille reminded me of what the best art can do in us – art done with devotion, care, and great love. It restores us and reminds us of the promise of a more beautiful time, both a time passed and a time to come. It names us and gives us back to ourselves. It makes us children again in that it makes us feel wonder. It awakens the possibility of love, redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth.

And that’s of course what happened when cynical food critic Anton Ego, a heartless shell of a man, tasted a dish that was made with great love by an unlikely chef – a rat! The cynicism melted in a moment and he was born again, or baptized, or whatever you want to call it.

I don’t want to spoil the end for you, but suffice it to say that Anton Ego passed from the walking dead into the land of the living again and became a large hearted man who rediscovered his love of food and even life.

The movie also offered a wholesome message for kids that anyone can pursue what they love, and that they should do so even in the face of critics and seemingly insurmountable odds. It had the added pleasant aftertaste of making our kids interested in more adventurous foods! Most importantly for me is that it reminded me that anything we do with great love has the potential to transform the world around us.

If you love movies about food, check out: Tortilla Soup, Chocolat


19 Comments

  1. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I have to chime in right away on this one.

    This was one of my favorite movies of the year. Maybe my favorite. Pixar has managed to maintain a level of excellence with their work that is noticed even by my kids–when they see the Pixar logo at the start of a film, they comment on how glad they are that it’s Pixar and not Dreamworks or even Disney. Maybe it’s that I’m raising movie snobs, but I think it’s that Pixar is actually better and, well, everybody knows it.

    So why did I love this movie?

    Well, apart from the fact that it was visually stunning, and that the story was great (which still surprises me, given the premise), it was what it taught me about spiritual things. I really wasn’t trying to read too much spiritual truth into the story, like I’ve been known to do–I was smacked in the face with it. When Linguini takes the credit for cooking the food that Remy was responsible for, I remembered with shame how often I congratulate myself internally for my successes. And when Linguini finally faces the truth and confesses that he’s been taking credit for the real artist’s work, I saw a perfect picture of the way we as sub-creators are to think about our gifting.

    I also saw a picture of the Holy Spirit’s working in our lives. When Linguini surrenders completely to Remy’s direction, the magic happens–it is only when Linguini asserts his own will that there are problems. Isn’t that the way we’re supposed to let the Spirit guide us and direct us? And when someone sees our good works, and we acknowledge Christ’s work in us, we are able to experience freedom and satisfaction in the work because we know that it was Christ operating through us.

    I don’t think Brad Bird (may he make a zillion more movies, and may I always be able to afford to go see them) intended for these little pictures of truth to be in the film, but they gave me tools for thinking about my own work and obedience. I’m better able to understand the Spirit’s work in me because of a movie about a French rat. Ain’t that something?

    AP

  2. Tom Bubb

    To be perfectly honest I didn’t enjoy this movie very much. The concept was too odd for me to really connect to and Remy struck me as being a little too single-minded and selfish in his culinary quests. However I’m a big fan of Brad Bird’s work in general so I think I’ll rewatch this movie at some point and see if it strikes me differently. Thank you Jason and Andrew for your thoughts- I appreciated them quite a bit!

    Tom B.

  3. d patton

    also one of my favorite movies on the year…watched it again last night as part of our weekly “family movie night”. i wish i’d been able to read this post before watching. not sure what is likely lacking in my spirituality (altho’ there are probably many, many things), but i’m notoriously inept at recognizing these types of themes & concepts. now i can’t wait to watch this one again, a little more closely.

    thanks for the insight….thanks for the rabbit room!!

  4. Andy Sutton

    Jason, I am glad you posted your thoughts on this movie. My wife and I went to see it on a whim when it first opened. Granted, it was not a movie where many childless couples in their 20’s were to be found, but there we were. The main reason we wanted to see it was that we had just returned from visiting friends in England where we had the opportunity to visit Paris for two days. On the last night of our short visit we went to a small family owned restaurant near Sacre Coeur. We could relate to the “fireworks display” shown in the movie. It is one of the fondest memories, so far, I have with my wife. Ratatouille brought back many of those memories we had in Paris, which are too many to recall in one post.

    One thing that was not mentioned about the movie was its anti-consumerism message. In particular, I laughed at the way they poked fun at the marketing of processed foods as a replacement of “real food.” Nothing beats a meal that has been crafted together perfectly whether it is at a fancy Parisian restaurant or by my wife in our country home. This idea transcends hot pockets and speaks directly to my greedy innermost parts. I need to be reminded frequently not to give my heart to this world and all the goods it provides. As C.S. Lewis showed us in “The Last Battle” there is a “Real Narnia” that exists and everything else is just a cheap copy.

    Andy

  5. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    It’s in my Netflix queue. With a son who is no longer a little boy, I often miss these cool animated features. Thanks for the recommendation, Jason.

  6. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I just saw Ratatouille for the first time over the weekend. I always like movies about food, Babette’s Feast being my favorite in the category. AP is forever using the term “sub-creator”; cooking is one art that constantly reminds us that the artist is a sub-creator, not creating ex nihilo, but coming up with new combinations of what the Creator has given–and in so doing giving us something that is beautiful and nourishing. The cook gives us new and deeper ways of experiencing what has been there all along.

    I love the scene when Remy the rat is whirling around looking for things to go with the mushroom he’s found–cheese from the garbage, rosemary, dewdrops. Then lightning, then high-risk saffron (which led to big trouble not just for Remy but for his whole colony).

    Tom Bubb mentioned Remy’s single-mindedness and selfishness in his culinary pursuits. I take his point. But for better or worse, you could hardly hope for a better account of the aesthete’s single-mindedness (and occasionally selfishness) than that scene.

  7. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Oh yes!! Thanks for mentioning Babette’s Feast – I’d forgotten about that one. That movie has one of the most profound preachments of grace.

    Nice thought about “sub-creating” too.

  8. elijah

    Brad Bird is amazing. The Incredibles is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and The Iron Giant is subtle and beautiful. He also worked regularly on King of the Hill, an often silly but poignant cartoon. However, I did not enjoy Ratatouille as much as any of his previous work.

    Jason wrote, “I know this isn’t necessarily what the movie is about, but in this moment Ratatouille reminded of what the best art can do in us – art done with devotion, care, and great love.”

    That is precisely why I didn’t like this movie as much as Bird’s other films. The movie could have gone that direction, and at first I thought that it was going to. It began as a picture about creativity and art, but quickly settled into a message of “don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do.” I found myself wishing by the movie’s end that it had aspired to more.

    The visuals are stunning (especially the food tasting scenes, as Jason noted), and the characters are interesting, but the movie seemed to lack the focus of other Brad Bird and even other Pixar films. I think some of the reason behind this is that this movie wasn’t originally a Brad Bird project. The story wasn’t his idea (The Iron Giant and The Incredibles were all Bird, though admittedly The Iron Giant was based on a children’s book), and production had begun long before he got involved. This was another man’s work, and Pixar didn’t like how things were progressing, so they brought Bird in to finish things up. Read about it here:

    http://www.darkhorizons.com/news07/bradbird.php

    That being said, it’s not a bad movie – it’s worth watching – it’s just not as good as it could have been.

  9. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    One more thought about this one. I read a great review (don’t remember where) in which someone pointed out the striking similarities between the food empire that Gusteau’s became (with the hot pockets and frozen pizzas) after his death and the devolution of Disney’s respectability after Walt’s death.

    I think Pixar is saying something about the way Disney used to be groundbreaking and set the bar for kids’ movies, and over the years they started churning out all the direct-to-video sequels that ruined the classics.

    An interesting take on it, I think.

  10. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    A couple of folks have mentioned that they take issue with Remy’s single-mindedness and selfishness with regards to his life-long culinary aspirations. Yes, I realize this is a movie about a rat we’re talking about here – animated no less – so I don’t want to seem nit picky, but I must take up issue with the issue. Here’s my reason (and perhaps ill-prepared explanation) why:

    If everything we ever did or said or pursued in life were based on perfectly noble, honorable and, in the Believer’s case, Godly reasons, then where does that leave the grace of God? Would we need it anymore? Would we want it? I think no, at least not in a daily-walking-with-Him sense. It is in the frail, poor “art” of our decisions that God chooses to work and, hopefully, bless. I wonder (aloud) how many times I’ve taken the stage to perform a show – or worse, how I’ve left the stage proud of my performance – with greedy hopes that people will fall in love with my music (and me) and think I’m the greatest thing since (sliced) Bread. (Note: that’s a really lame joke referring to the 70’s band. I couldn’t resist. Sorry.) My aspirations are not always out of humble intent. After all, I want to sell a boatload of records and find wealth and fame just like any other singer-songwriter-artist-type. But I hope (and trust) that God will still bless my feeble attempts at communication and artistry long after I am gone, but preferably before then. Besides, a lot of people think I’m not nearly as good as bread, neither the band nor the food. I concur and I digress.

    My point is that rarely do any of us possess the noblest of intentions, whether in pursuit of career, family, art, play, finances, whatever. To recognize that Remy chose – yes, perhaps selfishly – to pursue his ultimate dream and to “become who he was born to be” seems beside the point. The point, at least the way I see it, is that God, in his ultimate Goodness and all-knowingness, still chooses us and still chooses to use and bless us despite our frailty, our cheapness, our vagabond ways, our intentions whether good or poor, and yes, despite even our self-centered decisions. He works and wills in spite of ourselves. The beauty of our “art”, every single one of us whether we sub-create or not, is that “God chose to use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” and “works for the good of those who love him.” The fact that, in this movie, Remy is a bona fide rat – one of humanity’s most despised creatures – is, to me, all the more revealing and insightful.

    There’s probably more to this and there are more thoughts, even Biblical characters, that I have failed to plumb, but for now that’s my two cents’ worth.
    -ep-

  11. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I just read a review posted by a conservative Christian blogger who blasted this movie for being a kids film that features alcohol in it and also portrays a young man born out of wedlock as it’s hero. He also went on to dismiss other Disney movies that only depict single parent families like Bambi, The Lion King, etc.

    Where do these people come from, and can we send them back?

    JG

  12. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I’ve already taken up several suggestions that came from our little cubby hole here. I really appreciate the great ideas! After following asleep for several nights and dreaming of rats (I really did!), I finally finished Ratatouille. I enjoyed it far more than I expected, and I really expected to like it.

    You have all made interesting observations, but I’d like to maybe reinforce the thread of thought that Eric pursued. Here’s one of Skinner’s rants:

    Skinner: (notices that Linguini is holding a ladle) Move it, garbage boy! You are COOKING? HOW DARE YOU COOK in my kitchen! Where did you get such gaul to even attempt to be so monumentally deluded? I should have you drawn and quartered! I’ll do it! I think the law is on my side! Larousse, haul and throw him down – after you put him in the freezer to squeeze the fat out of his brains!

    How universal are these lines? Who among us hasn’t been bitten by the fangs of disapproval? Sometimes it’s brutally overt. In fact, I just read a blog from somebody that was suffering this kind of mean spirited, unkind criticism (for her own good, of course). More often, it’s subtle, like a reproachful gaze.

    In watching Remy, I was reminded of people I know that labor with little financial reward, for largely noble reasons. They labor in the shadow of a medicore monster that that doesn’t chew them up, but would not hesitate to spit them out. Sadly, being chewed up and spit out might be a better fate than that which they often endure–apathy. These people don’t quit and rarely complain. Like Remy, other’s get credit while they labor behind the scenes.

    The Remy’s of the world are legion. They would do what they do for free. It’s in them. They do it because it’s honorable and right. They do it because they care, because they want you to care. We might be startled by how much they care. If you know somebody like this, please consider offering a gift that they may not soon forget.

    Thank you.

  13. Paul Hutchinson

    Sorry – couldn’t resist picking up on this earlier comment:

    >I just read a review posted by a conservative Christian blogger who
    >blasted this movie for being a kids film that features alcohol in it and
    >also portrays a young man born out of wedlock as it’s hero.

    Hmm – now what does that remind me of… Oh yes, I remember now – the Gospels! Down with that sort of thing…

    I really appreciate the review, Jason. For some reason, the movie hadn’t registered on my radar, but I would like to get it out now, and maybe watch it with my godsons. (Obviously, a single guy needs an excuse for this kind of thing!)

  14. Alex Taylor

    I realize I’m quite late in posting this, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on ‘Ratatouille’ so much that I couldn’t resist adding a few of my own in response.

    I think ‘Ratatouille’ is the best Pixar film to date, honestly. And that’s saying something, as I have for years now been championing their films as the saviours of Western animation. The obvious comparisons that may be drawn between the art of cooking as presented in ‘Ratatouille’ and the art of animation practiced by its makers are really delightful. Both are borne out of genuine craftsmanship, and, ultimately; love. And that’s precisely why Pixar has been so successful while Dreamworks (for example) has failed miserably. Peter O’Toole’s speech about critics and criticism at the end of the movie brought tears to my eyes – it was as deeply touching a moment as I’ve ever seen on film, and, to its makers’ credit, there was not so much as a hint of sentimentalism, melodrama, or grudge-bearing didacticism about it. Just clear, honest wisdom.

    Another truly wonderful film about food that I highly recommend to anyone here who hasn’t seen it is ‘Mostly Martha,’ released in 2002 in Germany and remade for stupid American audiences last year in the form of the decidedly inferior ‘No Reservations.’ Ignore the remake and go straight for the original film, which is among the most charming, sweet, and earnestly truthful love stories you’re ever likely to see.

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