Recently I revisited three Pixar films (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) in an attempt to decide which film I wanted to promote as the studio’s true masterpiece (Toy Story has received the most critical acclaim due to the novelty of its being the first; as the studio reached greater heights in its 2000s golden age, we must rethink which film represents the apex of its talents). Both Finding Nemo and The Incredibles were better than I remembered; as for which I would champion as Pixar’s magnum opus, I have to pick the former. Finding Nemo has a purity to its structure; being an adventure story in a nature setting makes it feel closer to some abstract cinematic ideal, though I admit it’s because I gravitate towards the archetypal that I see this as preferable. Ratatouille, on the other hand, is immersed in the adult human world and has a narrative as complex as the rules of its high society setting. When I first saw it I felt it was above average and yet not quite on the same level as these two predecessors; on this recent visit I am surprised to find this original opinion reconfirmed. Yet while I feel its higher ambitions yield an aesthetically messier result than its peers, I still appreciate it for what it is: an invitation to believe in destiny.
First I must explain what I mean when I say Ratatouille is aesthetically messy. I do not mean to say that it does not know what it wants to be aesthetically, rather that Ratatouille is coherent yet deliberately embraces the aesthetics of mess. Dissonance is its core concept: the dissonance between the delicious world of fine dining and the gross world of sewer rats. Because the images the story requires make you waver back and forth between the appetizing and the revolting, the feeling of wanting to eat and wanting to vomit, you never feel entirely comfortable.
Ratatouille also puts the audience continually on guard through the anxiety of the stressfully-paced world it portrays: whether in the farmhouse, the sewers, or the streets of Paris, our animal protagonist Remy the rat is always narrowly managing to scurry away from massive obstacles; the film presents an urban world in which everything comes at you at once; dialogue references the “fast lane” and the “dinner rush.” When coworker Colette pins the new chef Linguini’s sleeve to the table with kitchen knives, we receive a synthesis of the appealing culinary world and its cutthroat stakes in a single image.
Chaos is one of the dominant energies in the film. This force of disorganization is perhaps best embodied in the character of Linguini. Linguini is an iteration of the fool archetype: his appearance is goofy and rubbery; he appears to have trouble both with basic verbal communication and physical coordination. Everything about him broadcasts a feeling of slipping and spilling, the uncomfortably un-contained feeling one gets from walking with untied shoelaces. Just like there is dissonance between the mouth-watering environment of the kitchen and Remy’s vermin aura, we also receive a great deal of tension from how unlikely it is the clumsy Linguini will not only succeed in the kitchen environment but successfully keep his relationship with Remy a secret.
We get this feeling of “spilling” in the scenes which involve Linguini stumbling in his interactions with Colette or Remy breaking the rules to feed his rat friends, not only because we feel we are witnessing a form of transgression, but also because in these scenes the narrative path towards the simple goal has become complicated by obstacles, setbacks, and subplots. Mistakes are in the very DNA of this film, not because the film makes mistakes (it does — the film being so conceptually all over the place results in a handful of scenes that don’t work and jokes that don’t land well, though these are small forgivable slights) but because the film is about mistakes.
One plot element which I had always considered messy watching Ratatouille as a child was Remy’s ability to puppet Linguini by hiding beneath his chef’s hat and puppeteering him by pulling on his hair. This phenomenon is introduced out of nowhere right when there is no other way for these characters to move forward, and we are given no explanation behind its existence. I now realize that I was confused about this because I imagined that, apart from the talented rats, Ratatouille took place in a world more or less grounded in reality; now, watching the film as an adult, I see Linguini become Remy’s puppet and don’t need to question it because I understand it is magic. Linguini’s receptiveness to this puppetry is his superpower; it is unique to him, and he was given this ability specifically so Remy could use it. Reading the events of the film this way, Ratatouille becomes the story, not of Remy or Linguini, but of the chef Gusteau’s ghost guiding them together to save his restaurant.
The threat to Gusteau’s legacy is established in a scene where we see chef Skinner using Gusteau’s image to sell frozen dinners. Gusteau would rather the restaurant close down than see its reputation become cheapened, and so he creates a chain of events that will bring this about. Of course, the supernatural force guiding events need not necessarily be seen as Gusteau. Remy envisions the force leading him to Gusteau’s restaurant as the deceased chef, which is why it is easy to see things that way, but this could merely be a mental representation of the spirit of artistic excellence which Gusteau embodied in life.
Though to some extent this spirit could be considered a part of Remy all along, Remy’s success is just as much due to luck as it is to skill. Ratatouille is a string of unlikely events all dependent on one another, to such an extent where one has to accept that some invisible force of destiny is pulling the strings: Remy being separated from his family in the sewer and carried not only to Paris, but specifically to Gusteau’s restaurant, Linguini ruining the soup right when Remy is there to fix it, Skinner being distracted when the soup is being carried out the door, the soup being served to a critic… the list goes on, but when it is revealed Linguini is Gusteau’s son, it becomes more evident than ever that there is a force of destiny guiding events that is aligned with what Gusteau’s spirit would want.
Gusteau’s spirit aims, not only to close the restaurant, but to save its reputation and end its story on a high note, and succeeds by creating the only chain of events that could have produced that outcome. The strange circumstances which begin the film are explained by what they accomplish. The story culminates in a review written by Gusteau’s former nemesis, the food critic Anton Ego: “In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Every piece of spiritual guidance and good luck given to Remy and Linguini by Gusteau’s ghost was given so that he could convince his most famous critic of his core philosophy, something which happens through Ego being served excellent cooking and then afterwards being shown its unlikely source. Gusteau not only forces Ego to recognize anyone can cook, but he also forces him to recognize the event as the result of his magical intervention.
This is the primary purpose Remy’s being a rat serves for Gusteau: it prevents people from giving credit to anything but magic (and, of course, Remy had to be an animal small enough to fit inside Linguini’s chef hat). Yes, Linguini is too clumsy to function, and yes, Remy is a rat, but their improperness for the world of cooking is precisely why Gusteau relishes using them as tools in his plan, because he wants to challenge the suffocation of strict adherence to tradition by fashioning success from humble origins. Everything about Remy and Linguini’s story is about spilling and slipping, but it is only because of chaos and mistakes that they succeed (and Gusteau makes sure to reward them when they have served their purpose). Remy would not have fixed the soup if Linguini had not knocked it over; the soup would never have been served to the customer if Skinner had his way; Remy would not have discovered the letter showing Linguini was Gusteau’s son if he had not been in the act of stealing; if the rat colony had not been so familiar with Gusteau’s kitchen from Remy’s incidences of stealing, they would not have been so able to help during the film’s finale. Humble origins for greatness are even the foundation of the otherwise unbelievable romance between Linguini and Colette; it is because she believes in Gusteau’s motto that she is interested in Linguini, who to her embodies the ideal of talent from an unlikely source.
At the conceptual core of Ratatouille’s narrative is the idea that when everything goes according to the rules, it usually benefits the forces of authority and convention, while the forces of innovation, on the other hand, seek out new sources of talent to favor. Its communication of this central theme through an aesthetic that displays the beautiful food alongside the chaos that creates it places the film above other cinematic iterations of the admittedly tired “aspiring young male misfit artist” narrative. Its grounding in the complexity of the adult world, which prevents me from calling it Pixar’s best, will cause others to; it’s simply a matter of preference. Still, I have appreciated it for its gorgeous visuals, and upon revisiting it I have learned to appreciate a new side of it. Ratatouille is as magical as any fairy tale, but its magic is not overt; rather it is a subtle invisible force hanging within the film’s gleaming Parisian interiors, and this is what makes the film’s approach to the supernatural unique. Sometimes magic glows and glitters; here, it aids the humble through the mere power of accident.