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Ratatouille Reminds Us What Art Can Do

As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I couldn’t resist writing about a family movie that features food and offers a lot to be thankful for. Two of the things that my wife Taya and I enjoy the most are good stories and good food. In Ratatouille we got to enjoy both – and with our kids, too!

I’ve been a big fan of Brad Bird since I reluctantly watched The Iron Giant to be a good dad. I both laughed (and even cried) harder than either of my boys at the time and it’s become a movie we’ve returned to again and again. Then of course came The Incredibles, which is arguably one of the best superhero movies ever.

When we started seeing ads for Ratatouille, I’ll confess I wasn’t that excited to see it, but my interest was piqued when I found out that Brad Bird was the wizard behind the curtain for the latest Pixar film. So we went to see it, and we weren’t disappointed.

What I love about Brad Bird is that he is able to make films that are both really “cool” and vulnerable at the same time. There is real heart to his stories, yet they never rely on sentimentality to play our emotions. The scenes from The Incredibles when Helen Parr suspects that her husband might be having an affair in his mid-life crisis were surprisingly tense and poignant. Even though the story was obviously fantastical, it all felt very rooted in reality to me. I didn’t expect an animated film to be this grown up.

I think the same is even truer of Ratatouille. The movie is an amorous love affair with fine food made for an audience who is more likely to ask for mac and cheese than they would baked brie with mango chutney.

It’s the story of a rat with a penchant for gourmet food and dreams of being a great chef. He’s got the gift, but as a rodent lacks, well, a certain quality of homo sapien-ness. He finds an unlikely ally in the kitchen of a once-vaunted restaurant in Paris. Perched under the hat of his human friend Linguini, Remy’s knack for cooking up delectable dishes reinvigorates the restaurant’s reputation – but what would Paris think if they knew a rat was calling the shots? The script is obviously clever and the animation is state of the art, so rather than comment on the story and style, I’d like to relate a couple scenes that I loved.

Every time the rat Remy would taste a certain food, the background would fade to black and there would be a play of color bursts behind him to visually represent Remy’s experience of taste. When he would combine that certain food with another the play of light and shapes would deepen in complexity, whirring and spinning and going off like a fireworks display. We laughed out loud with delight thinking, “yeah, that’s what that flavor looks like!” That Bird could so effectively communicate the sense of taste through visuals is a testament to his gift, and it’s one of my favorite things about Ratatouille.

But it was a scene towards the end of the movie that stole the whole show for me. When Anton Ego – the bitter, arrogant, and curmudgeonly food critic whose jaded reviews make or break restaurants – walks in, we know we’re in for Ratatouille’s equivalent of a showdown at high noon (only it’s dinner time, and instead of guns it’s a critic’s pen and a rat’s whisker – not that kind of whisker, but, y’know, the kind you whisk with ;-).

Remy puts together a simple serving of ratatouille, a traditional French Provençal stewed vegetable dish, and serves it to Anton Ego. With one taste, his eyes open wide in wonder-filled bewilderment as the camera zooms into his pupils and takes us deep into Ego’s past where we see him as a little child in a fond memory of his mother serving him ratatouille. The scene is genuinely tender, and when the camera zooms back out we see that the dish has awakened more than just a kindly childhood memory, but also the child himself long buried in Anton Ego. I didn’t see this coming, and this scene did for me something similar to what the ratatouille did for Ego. I was unexpectedly moved to tears and a real sense of wonder and joy came over me. This is why:

I know this isn’t necessarily what the movie is about, but in this moment Ratatouille reminded me of what the best art can do in us – art done with devotion, care, and great love. It restores us and reminds us of the promise of a more beautiful time, both a time passed and a time to come. It names us and gives us back to ourselves. It makes us children again in that it makes us feel wonder. It awakens the possibility of love, redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth.

And that’s of course what happened when cynical food critic Anton Ego, a heartless shell of a man, tasted a dish that was made with great love by an unlikely chef – a rat! The cynicism melted in a moment and he was born again, or baptized, or whatever you want to call it.

I don’t want to spoil the end for you, but suffice it to say that Anton Ego passed from the walking dead into the land of the living again and became a large hearted man who rediscovered his love of food and even life.

The movie also offered a wholesome message for kids that anyone can pursue what they love, and that they should do so even in the face of critics and seemingly insurmountable odds. It had the added pleasant aftertaste of making our kids interested in more adventurous foods! Most importantly for me is that it reminded me that anything we do with great love has the potential to transform the world around us.

If you love movies about food, check out: Tortilla Soup, Chocolat


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