Ratatouille

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Wednesday night I watched with several friends of mine the film Ratatouille, the newest Disney/Pixar film. It was kind of odd going to a 9:30 weekday showing (one in which no kids really would attend – way past their bedtime) but perfect for us 20 year olds. Disney movies are supposed to be universally enjoyable, so I have little qualms about seeing a “kids movie”, but I really was excited to see this film because of the computer graphics, and I was not disappointed.

The film began with an animated short, starring an alien who is taking his flying saucer driving lessons, which was really well done. Pixar grew out of the animated shorts Job’s company first produced, and I think it is great that they stay to their roots by having a short before their feature releases. In fact, the very first short, “Luxo Jr.,” focused on the white lamp that we now see jumping on the “I” on the Pixar icon – I still remember my brother, who worked for Pixar’s sister company, showing me the tape of this when it was first made.

The movie itself tells the story of Remy, a rat with a penchant for cooking, who is seperated from his family, ends up in Paris, and assists a young boy to become a master chef at a French restuarant. The depiction of the food is fantastic, and I was practically growing hungry just watching. The sewage scene, in which Remy is tumbling in water, looks as if it could be live film, and one can clearly see the evolution since Finding Nemo. Even more interesting was the depiction of the Rats themselves, who aren’t as Disney-fyed as one would expect. Remy (who insists he not walk on the feet he eats with) is the only one who does not crawl on all fours, and while he and his brother look endearing, the rest of the clan look like, well…rats. You know animation has done its job when all the rats scatter across the kitchen floor, the audience, including me, gives a shudder, accepting the realness of the scene unfolding before us.

I thought the film was good from a plot standpoint, but it did seem at times one dimensional. Most of the interaction is between the boy and Remy, and there is only so far this can go before it becomes predictable and a bit trite. There are three miniplots, which weren’t quite the complement with each other they could have been. I also found it interesting that much of the humor (such as that revolving around cuisine) is meant for adults, and in fact I felt kids would not find this movie as funny or as relevant as Finding Nemo or Toy Story. And if the movie is not as funny, I would expect it to have explored the relationships of its characters a bit more.

I do agree that the moral overtones (even if overdone) seperate this film from the pervious ones.LIBERTAS writes in its review:

But nothing nothing impressed me more in this film than the lack of moral authority given to the animals. Too many animal-driven animated films suffer from what should be called Watership Down Syndrome where humans are considered the source of all evil, and the animals perfect stewards of the earth. I can’t even express how sick I am of that theme. Film after film treats us humans as though were some kind of genetic mistake of nature who don’t even belong here. But Remy loves us. He even says so. He calls us amazing and inventive. And one of the great arcs of the story is how both the humans and the rats overcome their mutual revulsion. Yes, a film where it’s not just us humans who must be taught tolerance. How refreshing is that?

Ratatouille also was for me an argument for Christian paternalistic ethic, as its “anyone can be be a great cook” mantra clearly echoes the sentiment that with hard work anyone can acheive success, even a lowly rat and a boy with janitorial duties. I actually thought this was a bit odd, since the boy gets ahead by cheating (he manipulates the rat , or vice versa the rat manipulates him) to make it seem like he has skill. When the health inspector comes, they have to tie him up to ensure the success of their venue. The food critic loses his credibility over the fiasco that ensues, but is redeemed by “investing in a small business” – the boy opens another restuarant when Gasteau’s is shut down. I dunno, maybe the real lesson is to be clever, and use those around you to succeed.

The Amatuer Gourmet offers its take on the film:

The key moment in “Ratatouille” is not the creation of the title dish, a layered circle of sliced zucchini, eggplant, and tomato perfectly rendered by Pixar’s animators and lovingly sauced by Remy, the film’s protagonist. It’s not the climactic scene of judgment by the film’s primary antagonist, the food critic Anton Ego, voiced by a droll Peter O’Toole. It is, instead, the moment when the father rat, Django–voiced by Brian Dennehy–takes Remy to the surface to show him what humans do to rats. Remy looks up and sees a giant store window filled with rat traps and, more horrifically, his dead brethren strung up with cold, calculated indifference. Taken along with the scene where Remy, in a sewer, overhears a woman complaining about “filthy vermin” the movie becomes–at least for me–a powerful metaphor for the 20th century Jew’s attempt at assimilation…

Fear of the Christian world is a very real experience for many Jews the same way that fear of the human world is a very real experience for the rats in “Ratatouille.” To me, that moment where Django shows Remy the shop window is the equivalent of Hebrew school teachers showing young Jews slides of concentration camps, reminding them that there’s no safety anywhere, that the Jews are incredibly vulnerable. What Remy must overcome in the movie is not so much the challenge of the kitchen–using Linguini (his human friend) like a puppet, impressing the corrupt head chef–but, instead, the seemingly unreconcilable worlds of humans and rats. The movie chronicles Remy’s attempt to assimilate.

Remy loves the human world. In one of the earliest scenes in the movie, he tries to convince his brother, Emile, that humans, while they have their faults, are pretty wonderful. “Look what they do with food,” he cheers. He bemoans the fact that his fellow rats eat trash. “There’s a reason they call it trash,” he quips.

The rats eat trash in “Ratatouille” because they have to eat trash. Liken that to the historical position of the Jews in post-Christianized Europe where, because handling money was considered impure, they were forced to become bankers and money-lenders. Consequently, Jews developed a deadly reputation for being money-obsessed: a reputation that Hitler used to justify their “extermination.” (Is it a coincidence that the scurrying rats in “Ratatouille” look a lot like those in Hitler’s propaganda films? And, for that matter, why does Django have a hooked nose?) Remy’s disgust at his family’s trash-eating ways is almost Philip Rothian in how he resents the cultural fate he’s been dealt. If humans think of rats as trash-eaters and rats continue to eat trash, there’ll never be any escape. To quote Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint (pg 76): “Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass–I happen also to be a human being!”

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But Remy, unlike Roth, is not a human being. He’s a rat. And the movie’s way of dealing with that fact is, in my opinion, decidedly dark. At the end the rat world and the human world are not reconciled. Anton Ego knows Linguini’s secret but keeps it to himself, choosing to benefit from the genius rat (eating at his restaurant every day) without giving him the glory he deserves. And Remy’s fellow rats, while happily noshing on Remy’s food, are doing so in what I took to be the restaurant’s attic. The attic! Sure those rats look happy, but they’re still in hiding. And hiding in an attic has undeniable resonance for 20th century Jews.

The story of “Ratatouille,” then, is a story of exploitation. Django exploits Remy for his poison-sniffing abilities; Linguini exploits Remy for his arm-controlling kitchen skills; and, in the end, the world exploits Remy for his food, a set-up that he finds enjoyable but probably not ideal. He’ll never reach the career heights of his mentor, Gusteau: he’ll never write a bestselling cookbook (unless he ghost-writes it), he’ll never star in his own cooking show. He’ll never dine at other fine dining establishments to study the food; he’ll never get to hang out with other chefs and shoptalk over a beer. He’ll stay where he is and do what he does and he’ll be grateful that he got as far as he did. Is that a happy ending? The audience seemed to think so. Everyone left the theater with smiles on their faces. But for Jews worldwide, many of whom hide out in kitchens of their own–doing their jobs and then returning home to their Jewish friends and families, barely interacting with the Christian world–it is a very revealing portrait. We’re not entirely trapped, we’re not entirely free. We walk the tightrope and try to forget the fear of our elders, a fear that makes it impossible to fully step forward.

In my opinion, the plight of Remy and his family could in fact be likened to the gypsies even more than the Jews, but both historically faced their fair share of tribulations in France. The film in general clearly addresses the issue of being an outsider and assimilation extensively, and the parallel described above is one interpretation.

I was going to look forward to my Ratatouille Happy Meal toy, but just to prove that Disney is willing to embrace its adult audience, it is producing Ratatouille wine to help with marketing efforts…

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