Sunday, January 16, 2011

Food Porn


One of the things that really bothered me about The Incredibles, Brad Bird's first feature for Pixar, was the muddled Randianism it takes as its theme. I mean, the superhero archetype is inherently fascist, so I'm not surprised to see it. I WAS surprised that it formed a dominant theme, with the film making a case for the exceptionalism built into the archetype. The film's refrain, "If everyone is special, then nobody is," is kind of stupid on the face of it, because it presupposes that "specialness" is uniform. This is an absurd proposition in a world where every creature in it has a unique genetic code and in which the "specialness" of individuals is the driving force in the evolution of life, civilization, and culture. In any event, it stuck in my craw, especially given that the movie is otherwise an amazement. I like to think that Bird made Ratatouille (2007) as a kind of explanation of his original meaning, because the thesis at the heart of it is somewhat different and more to the point: "Not everyone can be a great artist," the film says, "but a great artist could be anyone." Of course, it's possible that I'm giving Bird too much credit for influencing the message of the movie, given that the original driving force behind it was Jan Pinkava, who Pixar relieved in favor of Bird mid-production.



Ratatouille is mainly concerned with the nature of genius. The genius in question is a Remy, who has been gifted with a keen sense of smell and a keener sense of what tastes good. In any normal universe, Remy would realize his gifts as one of the great chefs of France, but Remy, unfortunately, is a rat, and his lot in life seems to be sniffing food for poison on behalf of his family's colony. When he's not occupied by his duties with his family, he's busy sneaking into the kitchen of the old woman whose home conceals their colony in order to read her cookbooks. Here, he finds "Anyone Can Cook" by the great Parisian chef, Gasteau, and fills his head with dreams of cooking. Remy's quest to cook leads him and his undiscerning brother, Emil, into the crosshairs of the old woman, who wields a mean shotgun, and soon the jig is up for the entire colony, who evacuate. Remy gets lost in the shuffle, eventually winding up in Paris where he looks on in envy as the cooks in Gasteau's restaurant work. New to the crew there is Linguini, who doesn't know that he's Gasteau's bastard son. He's a hopeless cook, and he forms a kind of partnership with Remy, who guides Linguini to renown as the next great chef. This draws the ire of head chef Skinner, who stands to inherit the restaurant (and its profitable line of frozen foods) in the absence of an heir, and it draws the attention of food critic Anton Ego, who had long ago consigned Gusteau's to "the tourist trade."



Neverminding what actually happens in Ratatouille, it should be noted that this movie represents some kind of critical mass for Pixar. I mean, don't get me wrong: Pixar's previous films show an amazing amount of growth, but between Cars and Ratatouille, there seems like a quantum leap in the quality of the animation and in the depths of the themes. This has only deepened with subsequent movies, but Ratatouille holds some level of pride of place for combining the beauty and grace of late Pixar with the lunatic invention of early Pixar.



Starting with the grace: this is a visual marvel. This presents a Paris of dreams. This finds a visual language to represent tastes and smells. Merely as an object of beauty, this is without precedent in Pixar's prior films. It's a ravishingly beautiful movie. Victor Haboush, a veteran old-school Disney animator called this the best animated film since Pinocchio and I can see his point. It certainly has the same kind of technical perfection. All well and good. It's the lunatic invention that really sells it, though. The sequence at the end where Remy has to enlist his colony to prepare the meal for Anton Ego is second only to the door chase in Monsters, Inc. for sheer chutzpah. It's worthy of the silent comedians and has pitch perfect comedic beats. You can see some of the history of animation in this sequence, too, because it resembles some of those shorts from the 1930s in which the frame is filled with partying animated characters. Better still, it doesn't just rely on the visuals for its comedy. The scenes where Chef Skinner completely loses it are comedy gold, reminiscent of Herbert Lom's long descent into madness in the Pink Panther movies.



Ratatouille is a surprisingly adult movie, too. Certainly, the romance between Linguini and his fellow chef, Collette, is handled in a more mature manner than one expects in an animated feature, while the details of Linguini's parentage are unheard of in any animated film Disney has ever made. Certainly, the repeated references to French cinema further influences the film in this direction. Most telling, though, is Anton Ego's explication of the role of the critic. This is NOT the kind of thing one targets at children, but it's certainly the kind of meta-element designed for cinephiles:

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends."
As someone who often questions her need to write criticism of the things she sees, this is a manifesto.



Ego is an interesting character. This is a man who has an office shaped like a coffin, and a file for his reviews that is, almost literally, a morgue. One expects him to be the villain of the piece, alongside the philistine Skinner, but lo and behold, we see Ego change in the face of art. This scene is a vindication of the transformative power of the aesthetic experience and it's kind of thrilling. I should mention Peter O'Toole's voice work here, because it's menacing and droll at the outset, and turns gentle and wise in the end.



Finally, I'm a foodie at heart. I love to cook. Apart from everything else, Ratatouille is a love letter to the art of cooking and to the joys of food. That speaks to me in a deep and satisfying way. It's a kind of synesthesia that is simply beyond the grasp of most animated movies, and most movies in general. Again, Ego gets the last word when he declares "I don't LIKE food, I LOVE it. If I don't LOVE it, I don't SWALLOW it!" A man after my own heart.





4 comments:

Jaye Schmus said...

I gave this movie a pass in theaters and on DVD. I suppose I shall have to give it a go now. Thank you for trying to broaden my movie horizons.

Toxaemia said...

I loved this film! I also really enjoyed your review of it :)

It still kind of bums me out that old school animation has taken a back seat to computer animated features.

Jenn said...

Haven't seen it, but now I want to! We are food obsessed around the Cavalcade, Sam being a chef and all. I'm cooking tandoori chicken as we speak.

Great post.

dr.morbius said...

@Jaye: This is a movie that was built for the big screen--I mean, look at how wide my screen caps are--so it's a shame that you missed it there. But seek it out. It's fun.

@Toxaemia: Yeah. I love old school animation, too. Computer animation is fine, but it doesn't have that hand-made quality. Traditional animation is still out there, though. Are you planning to see The Illusionist?

@Jenn: Oooh. Tandoori chicken! Drool, drool!