Rémy has a persnickety palate and a yen for haute cuisine. He spends hours inventing recipes and poring over his favorite cookbook, a tome with the populist title Anyone Can Cook, by world-renowned Chef Auguste Gusteau. Remy's coarser father doesn't get it: "Food is fuel," he grunts. "You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is going to die." Rémy's rejoinder: "If you are what you eat, I only wanna eat the good stuff."
The conceit of a French rat that wants to be a chef is clearly geared to the younger set, but as a food writer, I wondered if the film's treatment of food would hold up under scrutiny. Would the filmmakers gloss over intricate culinary details so as not to bore the kiddies?
The short answer is a gleeful "no." The animation of the foodstuffs — from strawberries rotting in a compost pile to a realistically pliable omelette — is spot on. So is the portrayal of the formal French kitchen at Gusteau's Parisian restaurant, where Rémy ends up. There, chefs have burn marks on their wrists and stains on their aprons, shiny copper pots are scratched from use, and waiters wipe splashes of sauce from the edges of plates before service. How a rat gets into this fancy kitchen — and how a bunch of animators learned to capture the essence of fine dining — are both questions that deserve answers.
First things first. After his food fixation gets him in trouble with a cranky old gourmand armed with a shotgun, Rémy is separated from his family, à la Fievel in An American Tail, and deposited in a dank sewer. Hungry and frightened, with only a copy of Anyone Can Cook for company, Rémy hallucinates a conversation with the late Chef Gusteau. The rotund, perspicacious figment encourages him to go above ground in search of food. When he does, in a stroke of Disneyfied luck, he finds himself smack dab in front of Gusteau's Restaurant, now run by the diminutive and disagreeable Chef Skinner, formerly Gusteau's sous chef.
Why the affable chef made such a dour character his second-in-command is never explained. We do learn that Gusteau's, formerly a five-star property and the toast of Paris, was downgraded to a mere four stars after a visit from snarky food critic Anton Ego. In the aftermath, Chef Gusteau died, ostensibly of shame, and another star was shaved off. To the culinarily savvy viewer, a brief shot of Gusteau slumped on his desk brings to mind troubled Chef Bernard Loiseau, who famously committed suicide after his restaurant's rating in the Gault-Millau guide slipped.
After some slapstick humor and a few death threats, Rémy pairs up with a hapless garbage boy named Linguine, who has scored a menial job in the Gusteau kitchen. Linguine is incompetent and Rémy's not human, but put 'em together, and you've got one perfect chef. With Rémy hiding under Linguine's toque and controlling his actions with carefully timed tugs on his red locks, the duo whips up soup that impresses a food critic and a veal sweetbread concoction that gets the dining room in an uproar. Of course, before the film ends, they'll have to work together to impress the seemingly implacable Ego.
How did the filmmakers capture the kitchen so aptly? With a little help from one of the world's greatest chefs, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Keller not only created the movie's unusual version of ratatouille — every one of the 270 dishes that appear in the film were prepared in real life — he also served as a general culinary consultant and took on producer Brad Lewis as an apprentice.
Lewis wasn't the only one to get some education out of the deal. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, all 150 animators who worked on the film were treated to cooking lessons. A group of key players even took a trip to Paris, where they visited the sewers, an extermination shop and some of the fanciest restaurants.
The crew's culinary immersion paid off. The film's finest moments are simple ones, as when the animators use swelling music and firework-like graphics on a black background to "show" us Rémy's reactions as he samples a piece of cheese, then a bite of strawberry, then both together. Another fine touch is the film's lesson in finding a perfect loaf of bread, not by smelling it or looking at it, but by squeezing it and listening to the crackle of the crust. The resulting look of rapture on Rémy's rodent face will be familiar to any baguette-o-phile. In a humorous bit, a trio of rats shred cheese by turning the grater into a hill and the cheese into a sled. The only gaffe: Linguine persistently refers to herbs as "spices." But given his ignorance, that's plausible enough.
While the gastronomic bits in Ratatouille are as crisply nuanced as a foodie could wish, the film's overt messages sometimes feel more like overcooked pasta: boiled down to simple morals that are easy for youngsters to digest. Its statements about giving family and career equal importance belong in the "easier said than done" category. And lectures against stealing food, even when you're starving, would have made Hugo's Jean Valjean blush.
But writer-director Brad Bird isn't a simplistic thinker — his last film, the superhero satire The Incredibles, sparked op-ed debates about how inborn merit should be treated in a level-playing-field society. That theme pops up again here in the treatment of Gusteau's mantra "anyone can cook." In one scene, the chef's ghost adds a caveat: Sure, anyone can make food, but only the truly passionate will ever be great cooks. In another, Rémy snidely points out that, while anyone might be able to cook, "not everybody should."
More food for thought: The film asks how restaurant critics should use the power they wield with their oft-poison pens. Suffice it to say, though, that Ratatouille is likely to unite film critics and their foodie counterparts in saying, "Bon appétit." It may even teach some grade-school gastronomes how to pronounce the French double "l".