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Getting the dish on Ratatouille

What with the way the latest Pixar film, Ratatouille, touches on both the food and film worlds, Film Critic Curt Holman and Food Critic Besha Rodell decided to share their thoughts on the movie via e-mail. Here’s their dialogue ...

Curt: One of the first things that strikes me about Ratatouille is that, while being the eighth of Pixar’s smart, hilarious computer-animated family films, it really goes against their formula – or improvises on their recipe, to borrow a culinary term. The rest of the Pixar movies are basically slapstick adventure stories (except maybe for Cars), and all have differently colored ensembles of talking creatures who look like toys, even when they’re bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes or automobiles.

I’m sure Ratatouille will have its share of merchandising spin-offs, but the humans, however caricatured, look and dress like humans, and the rats look and move like rats. And while Ratatouille has many brilliant comic set pieces and some exciting action scenes, the heart of the film seems to lie in its exploration and celebration of sensual pleasures, via food. Remy, the rat who’s a “Litte Chef,” extols the pleasures of cooking and flavors to his fellow rats, and I love the parts when you see him experiencing the taste of foods as splashes of color and fireworks.

To me, Ratatouille almost has less in common with Pixar movies like Toy Story or The Incredibles (also directed by Brad Bird) than with the little genre of “foodie films” like Tampopo and Big Night. Skinner, the short, usurping chef-villain, is even voiced by Ian Holm, who ran the crass, commercial Italian restaurant in Big Night. With that in mind, I was wondering what you thought of the film’s portrayal of restaurant culture.

Besha: Well they sure got a lot more about restaurant culture right than critic culture! But more on that later. ... I loved that the person assigned to train Linguini, our young human protagonist, was a tough female cook, Colette. Her voice was done by Janeane Garofalo – perfect! In restaurant language, she would be called a “grill bitch” – not exactly kid-appropriate, but I thought her characterization was totally accurate: a tough girl who had to work twice as hard to make it in the harsh kitchen world. I also thought that the sequence where she explains the shady pasts of all the other kitchen workers was wonderful and especially lovely because of the underlying message that anyone can appreciate fine food, and that usually the people preparing your food aren’t part of the upper crust one associates with haute cuisine. But they are just as passionate.

There were things that were inaccurate, but not worth making accurate – for instance, no high-end kitchen would serve soup from a huge, bubbling pot; it’s just not how restaurant service works. But because of the major role the pot of soup takes in the story line, it’s a minor thing.

Because of the departure from the toylike characters, it does seem to have more in common with food movies. I do wonder if that will work as well for kids as it does for adults. But the balance is well-executed, and those rat’s-eye-view sequences of the city and the restaurant are thrilling.

Curt: One of the most thrilling scenes is a chase sequence late in the film that, in a more conventional family animated film, would have been the big climax. It’s great, and it resolves some of the superficial problems, but not the film’s deeper dilemmas, which come to a head in a big dinner-service sequence. I think that shows Ratatouille’s commitment to its subject matter; the big finale is not a chase or a fight sequence, but the preparation of a meal. And when I actually saw the final dish, I wanted to gasp aloud, because it looks so lovely.

It’s a subtly interesting detail, to me, that the restaurant food served at Gusteau’s, the film’s fictional eatery, is a bit “minimal” in presentation. In Big Night, the big dish, I believe, was an elaborate baked pasta concoction called a Timpani that was massive and luxurious-looking. When they serve the title dish in Ratatouille, it’s modest-sized but incredibly elegant-looking and rich in color. (That rat’s not only a great cook – his presentation is awesome, too!)

It impresses me that it looks like a real dish from a real, contemporary gourmet restaurant, and not some Texas-size entree that celebrates conspicuous consumption.

You mentioned the film’s portrait of the critic, which deserves some attention because he’s one of the main villains. Ratatouille’s vision of restaurant critics reminds me of the Julia Roberts movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, in which she’s a food critic. If memory serves me right, when that film opens she’s in a restaurant, somebody (either a maitre d’ or the chef) brings her a dish, she takes a bite and says something like, “I’m calling it (adjective) and (other adjective).” And any real restaurant critic says, “OK, how many inaccuracies can you spot in that scene?” She’s not trying to be anonymous? She’s telling them what she’s going to write before it gets into print? And then there’s Anton Ego.

Besha: Which is a fantastic name for a food critic. Especially one who has a coffin-shaped office. I’m so jealous! But the lack of anonymity bothered me, not because it’s inaccurate (which it is) but because it takes away the most playful and rich part of a food critic’s job. Just think how much fun they could have had with the cat-and-mouse game of figuring out a critic. It’s obvious and no fun to walk into a place and demand perfection; it’s so much funnier and richer to smile and say everything’s great while plotting a clever and devastating review. Not that I do that ... very often. I really love the idea of the food critic as villain, but I don’t think the inaccuracies justify the means in terms of the story here.

And speaking of that final climax, I absolutely love the sense-memory reaction the critic has to the final dish, and that the dish is termed “peasant food” but is the dish that makes the critic think about food differently. It’s such a lovely sentiment, that food is emotional and not just pretension and ego. The final dish was very beautiful and did look like something you’d actually see in a fantastic restaurant. But it worked because it made the diner feel something intensely.

Anton Ego plays a role that every good vs. evil movie needs, of the supervillain. The only upsetting parallel to reality is that it’s referenced in the beginning of the film that Gusteau dies soon after Ego demotes the great chef from five stars to four. There is a famous case of a chef in France who killed himself after losing one of his Michelin stars, and I couldn’t help but think of that. In that context, the restaurant critic goes from being just a simple grump to a true villain, which is a little easy or lazy or something.

Curt: Even though Anton Ego ultimately turns out to be on the side of the angels, the harshness of the portrayal bothered me a little bit. I can certainly see why filmmakers and other artists might want to exact a little revenge when they put reviewers in films, but the critic characters almost never resemble any reviewer I’ve ever known. Plus, director Brad Bird is a critic’s darling, and many reviewers rallied around his first film, the wonderful but underappreciated The Iron Giant. This is the thanks we get?