No matter how detached or aloof any of us pretends to be, there’s a thumbs-up and thumbs-down part in all of us. Herein lies an irony in the person of Roger Ebert: the man who, arguably, made contemporary movie criticism accessible to the masses, popularized the thumbs-rating system, and co-wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of the most verbose and pretentious chubsters to look down his nose at everyone else in the world. Oh yeah, he also wrote a book entitled, Your Movie Sucks. So, as distasteful as it is to acknowledge common ground with the guy who gave full reign to the most simplistic summary of movies the world has ever seen, a thumbs-up is in order: Ratatouille is just great and everyone should love it. The reluctance of my thumbs to gesture upwards has nothing to do with the film but, rather, the aforementioned wannabe screenwriter.
Ratatouille becomes especially interesting and quite significant when it is considered next to its director Brad Bird’s previous animated film, The Incredibles. Can’t remember where right now (probably some blah blah blog), but someone said something about Bird’s no-holds-barred, anything-goes approach to social politics as seen in his films. This is a common and deplorably lazy tactic on the part of those who, like Roger Ebert, want to boil down years of work and creativity of someone like a film director to one theme or trope which can easily be discarded. One may as well say that Pixar’s movies are all just cartoons. It turns out, though, that Bird’s films can’t be generalized so simplistically. These two films serve as good examples. The Incredibles does happen to uphold traditional family values. When Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl hook up, they get married, they have children, and they all take on the name “The Incredibles” – Mrs. Incredible is referred to later as “Elasti-Girl,” but, interestingly, there is a letter “i” on her suit. Mr. Incredible’s government-enforced ordinary life puts him in a cubicle environment that hampers his ability to fight crime and uphold justice. In a way, the moral of the film is that some people are special – implying that others aren’t. Dash expresses at least as much frustration as his father that he can’t use his powers, specifically in sports. His mother tells him that “everyone is special.” Dash replies, “Which is another way of saying, ‘No one’s special.’” The film vindicates the Incredibles’ re-entrance into crime-fighting and their use of super powers – even implying that as long as Dash sticks to 2nd place in sports, he isn’t misusing his powers.
Ratatouille is fundamentally different from The Incredibles. Right off, it’s true that Ratatouille doesn’t deny special talents and abilities; hence Remy the Rat’s culinary gift. But there is a certain moral to this story that is quintessentially egalitarian: “anyone can cook.” So plain is this lesson that it might actually be a deliberate counterpoint to the moral of The Incredibles: not everyone is super. In The Incredibles, the villain “Syndrome” was precisely the character who tried to be super and inherently was not. He utilized technology in order to bear super-traits and do super-things. (Nevermind that it would take a “super”-genius to do what he did.) Other than small roles from the babysitter, Mr. Incredible’s boss, and Syndrome’s female assistant, Syndrome is the only “non-super” given much attention at all in the film, and he’s the bad guy.
Ratatouille wisely includes the character of Linguini, the freckle-faced bastard child of Gusto who is utterly incompetent but lucky enough to run into Remy. Given almost as much screen time as Remy, Linguini learns not to take credit for the abilities of others and happily condescends to the role of server, despite owning the restaurant where his friend the rat cooks. Some people do have special gifts, Anton Ego the food critic insists, but those gifts are not spread out the way people tend to think. Skills can be taught and learned, and non-masters shouldn’t be ignored for needing an education. The masters, though, sometimes show up in unexpected places; in this case, Remy came from the sewer. Anton’s concluding article praising his rodent-prepared food is smart to insist that “not everyone can be a great artist,” but also that great artists come from the most unexpected places. So instead of backpeddling on the moral from The Incredibles, Brad Bird balances it with realist wisdom. Perhaps smarter than this point, though, is Bird’s anticipation of critical reviews of the film itself. The film makes a preemptive strike by defining the point of criticism and positing that, however good a critic is, his job is only to point out the great work of artists.
The moment when the ratatouille dish hits Ego’s taste buds, there is a return to childhood and, of course, the maternal. The food disarms Ego’s critical armor, takes him back in time, and then returns him to the present where he promptly drops his pen on the floor. Up until this point, Ego has been identified with death, an interesting insertion by Bird. Ego’s body is skeletal, his face morbidly pale, his voice inhumanly deep, and the shape of his study and objects inside of it are clearly shaped like a coffin. His identification with death prefigures his return to life when he tastes Remy’s dish. The flashback to his childhood returns warm colors to the character and allows him to return to life while his critical coldness dies, signified through the falling pen. He proverbially picks up the pen again, but only to confess his own shortcomings as a critic compared to the incomparable power of masterful art. Instead of art existing for the critic, the critic now exists for the sake of beauty.