Mark my words, Brad Bird can do no wrong…cinematically speaking of course. Following the success of The Iron Giant (see May 7 post), Bird scoffed at the potential of a “sophomore slump,” making The Incredibles, another box-office hit and critical success. Bird could have phoned-in a third installment, but took on, possibly, his greatest challenge thus far, making a film about a rat that cooks for humans. Not surprisingly, Ratatouille is one of the better films of the year and, quite possibly, Bird’s best yet.
Ratatouille tells the story of an ordinary rat, Remy (Patton Oswalt), with an extraordinary talent. Not content to rummage through the garbage pile with his family for the next meal, Remy prefers the finer things in life and dreams of becoming a famous chef. By chance, he is whisked from the French countryside to the heart of Paris and the doorstep of Gusteau’s Restaraunt, once Paris’ most acclaimed eatery. With one bad review and the death of its chef, the restaraunt fell out of the picky Parisians’ favor and is now run by the diabolical Chef Skinner who seeks financial gain by marketing Gusteau’s microwavable meals. Coinciding with Remy’s arrival is that of Linguini’s, Gusteau’s son and heir to the restaraunt. When tough luck forces Linguini to cook (which he absolutely has no idea how to do), he teams up with Remy to create fantastic feasts, culminating in an unforgettable showdown with Gusteau’s main critic, the devilishly skeptical Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole).
From a cinematic standpoint, Ratatouille is nothing short of perfect. The animators at Pixar have yet again shown their brilliance and, working in the tiny world of rats, great attention to detail. The casting and voice-work are both flawless, epitomized by O’Toole’s spot-on performance. Perhaps most surprisingly, Bird took two polar opposites, rats and fine dining, and made them perfect, unquestionable partners. I am already looking forward to the DVD release to view the creative ways that rats could run a kitchen that did not make the final cut.
As has come to be expected from Bird’s films, at least for me, Ratatouille is not without its share of spiritual/theological insight. The overarching tension in the film lies between two dueling mindsets, Gusteau’s belief that “anyone can cook” and Ego’s more conservative opinion that this is certainly not the case. This tension plays out in the film in several areas: Linguini’s place in a professional kitchen, Collette’s (Janeane Garofalo) role as a female chef (ironic given the supposed role of women in the kitchen), and, most expressly, Remy’s “identity crisis” as a rat who would be a world-class chef. The latter two have the greatest appeal for continued spiritual/theological discussion and find clear parallels in contemporary religious life.
Remy lives his life being explicitly and implicitly told that he can absolutely not follow his dreams because of his identity. “You are a rat,” he constantly hears. He is met with screams and physical threats when he is spotted in the kitchen. Yet within this cinematic world, nothing could be further from the truth. Remy is clearly gifted and his talents overwhelm even his staunchest opponents. In Ratatouille, Bird has shown that, in fact, a rat certainly can cook, and in doing so, he has shed a much-needed positive light on numerous “can/can’t” debates if we look close enough.
I was raised in a religious environment that told (and continues to tell) women that they cannot be ministers/preachers simply because their gender prohibits them from doing so. To be sure, countless women, and those who support them, have been lauged, intimidated, threatened, or ignored out of their vocational calling and rightful place in the pulpit. Thankfully, some denominations and groups have come to their senses and, along with the perseverance of women who feel called to a particular vocation, have partnered to create wonderful ministries. Surely, the world is a better place because of them.
Moreover, gays and lesbians have not only had to deal with insurmountable obstacles to the pulpit but have been barricaded from church membership as well. Some have even had their salvation openly questioned or written off altogether. They have been told, “You can’t be gay AND a Christian…forget the ministry.” Yet as Bird showed in Ratatouille, these dichotomies are simply ridiculous. Even worse, they are physically oppressive as countless gays and lesbians could identify with Remy and the life-threatening position in which he found himself simply because he wanted to cook. Ironically, great cooks and great ministers both nourish life, yet the people who are the most qualified are often told they do not belong in the kitchen.
These are just a couple of the parallels to Ratatouille that have a more immediate place in religious/theological circles. We have all been told “NO!” at some point in our lives. Undoubtedly, the reasons have been insane and illogical. In Ratatouille, Bird shows us the joys of saying “YES!” to one another and the delicious beauty of supporting each other’s dreams no matter how unlikely they may seem.
Ratatouille (G, 110 mins.) is in theaters now.