Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ratatouille or: Pretension, A Dish Best Served Cold

Ratatouille is, in many ways, the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film's confused aims and mixed success. It's not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up.

Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood.

Even in my own memory - having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist - the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance.

And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in great Art. I'll break this down....

Remy - the film's hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat - is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion.Yet, he is tied down in his roots. Remy is a rat- enemy of the cooking industry. This provides a lot of the film's conflict, but it represents any underdog, any unlikely outsider. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn't help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and 'us vs them' has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that's the one that - perhaps significantly - stood out to me.

Though, as Remy's hero reinforces throughout, "anyone can cook", regardless of who they are.

But Remy's family don't understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy's interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him- in an early scene, by literally shooting a shotgun at him and chasing him firmly away.

So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol' Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.
Our secondary hero, Linguini, on the right there, is just a proxy for Remy's ability. For the purposes of the film's metaphor, he is just another part of the artist- the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental.

In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau's successful recipes*. It is for this that Anton Ego, the secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant to "tourist fare."

Ego vs. Remy is the film's great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, "thin for someone who likes food." There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?
The moment of Ego's rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic's roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille- "a peasant's dish". The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always handy short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed.

And, of course the world can't take it. There is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder...

Maybe I'm putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids' film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions- writing this at 2am having just finished watching the film, I'm Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven't even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with... well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station.

Good.

At least I'm not the embittered critic. I'm a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego.

(Sidenote: look at the film's logo. Even its somewhat pretentious, for a kids' film, title is broken down to accessible chunks. It's a silly little joke, it's making it easier to approach for kids, it's the entire film in one handsome logo.)

*It might be worth noting at this point that the film was written and directed by the wonderful Brad Bird, who worked on the peak seasons of The Simpsons, probably TV's comedy, but by Ratatouille's 2007 release very firmly in a formulaic rut. Ahem.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.