Thursday, August 2, 2007

Vive la Ratatouille (did I mangle that?)

Director: Brad Bird
Patton Oswald as the voice of Remy
Peter O'Toole as the voice of Anton Ego
Disney/Pixar 2007

I went to see Ratatouille yesterday. I was putting off this post because I knew it would be hard for me to spell Ratatouille correctly for an entire post. But here we go (it’s r a t a t o u i, double l, e.)

Anthony Bourdain claims that this is the best movie about food ever made. I don’t agree, (that honor goes to Tampopo, Babette’s Feast finishing a close second, oh, and then there’s Big Night) but it is still very, very good. I suspect that Bourdain’s claim stems from the fact that he consulted on the film in its development stage. Boudain is a master of self-promotion and anything with his name on it has to be the best, that’s why the Travel Channel sends him all over the world to partake in the local moonshine and calf-testicles of places like Hinjut and Sjorndaggherland.

Ratatouille is a triumph on many levels. To bring the world of a restaurant kitchen to life with computer animation in a way that impresses real chefs (a persistently critical and easily distracted bunch) is equal to creating a menu that Gordon Ramsay would fawn over. The Pixar animators construct a kitchen atmosphere with scarily accurate details. The light and space of the often confining and crowded environment is oddly believable given the medium, and anyone who is curious about the workings of a classical French kitchen could do worse than going to see this film. We have to remember that it is a cartoon, a cartoon where a rat controls the motions a hapless chef by pulling on his hair as if he is controlling a marionette, but beyond the fantasy, and exaggerations, this film gets so much about a working kitchen right.

Actually, the fairy tale aspect also works remarkably well. This is Disney’s primary domain, and they fashion a story that distils the most basic Cinderella concepts into an intricate and convincing plot line. Rats, the absolute pariah of the restaurant business (forget about cockroaches, they don’t even come close) are the heroes of the film, and a scene where hundreds of rats are working a busy dinner service is perversely fascinating. The idea that Disney and Pixar can make a hero out of the antithesis of kitchen sanitation proves that the modern fairy tale has either been fully resuscitated or was never very far from our rushing, literal world.

Pixar doesn’t just score points for the kitchen scenes; the filmmakers produce an environment that is an apparent tribute to France and the French. Some Francophiles may locate stereotypes in Disney’s portrayal of Parisians, but it has been a while since I’ve seen a film about another country that made me want sell my house and move there immediately. The animators show a sparkling, beautiful Moulin Rouge inspired Paris; the coloring is transcendent, and lush atmospheres, such as a country house or the underground lairs of the rats, confirm that computer animation has come a long way since the days of Pong and Space-Invaders.

The plot, unfortunately, bogs down as the screenwriters try to tie up all of the misunderstandings and falling-outs experienced by the variety of characters. More than a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story, Ratatouille is more rat-meets-boy, boy-meets- hot chef de commis, rat-meets-imaginary-diceased-chef, rat-loses-boy, or is it boy-loses-rat…well, you see what I mean. Disney, it seems, never waivers in their instruction as to how we should conduct our relationships, but the frenetic make-up speeches at least drive the film and prevent any long periods of stagnation.

There is one point of accuracy that Anthony Bourdain must have missed. Linguini, the talent-less young chef, claims that sweetbreads are veal stomach when in fact they are either the thymus gland or pancreas of any less-than-one-year-old lamb or calf. Never-the-less, Remi, the rat hero, creates an amazing special order using the product, one that looks as if it involves a small poached egg, (possibly a partridge egg?) and a carmelized orange sauce. The people at Pixar had me salivating over a computer produced image of food. They are very good.

There are many reasons to see this film, but the main one is that it is fun. It is ride through a fantasy Paris, and a humorous send-up of chefs and their culture. It is also an example of how the animated feature film, a genre that constantly wants to stay fresh but often falls short, has a shelf-life that, with new treatment (dare I say additives? I dare not.), is far from turning stale.


litlove said...

Now here's a film I might actually end up seeing! This is a wonderful review, Ian, particularly made me laugh about Disney and it's edicts on relationships (what a post in waiting!). You wrote this just beautifully.

imichie said...

High praise indeed. What a great way to start the weekend, with such high praise from such an amazing writer.

Froshty said...

Hmm, maybe you should chuck those plans for graduate school and become a film reviewer. This review of the film was much better than any of the other reviews I've heard or read. I rarely go out to the movies, but this is one I might order from my club when the DVD comes out.

imichie said...

Froshty, guess what? I'm going to be doing reviews for the Guilfordian. Mainly restaurant reviews, but there is a possibility for film reviews. I’ll be in print, finally!

Danny said...

Great review and I also loved the film. I love any movie about food (especially those ones you mentioned, I could watch "Babette's Feast" over and over again) and I was also surprised that animated food could have the same effect. But what animation that was! I didn't realize Anthony Bourdain was involved but that makes sense since the kitchen looked SO realistic. I love the scene when Ego first tastes Remy's ratatouille. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it. My only query is about the ratatouille itself--very different from the kind I'm used to and have made many times, but I guess it differs regionally.

linser said...

I knew I wanted to see this movie but your review really convinced me. Great writing. Hope you'll post some of your restaurant reviews.

imichie said...

Danny, wow there is still so much I want to say about this movie. I think the Proustain response part was absolute genious,(and the Anton Ego character is worthy of a post himself) it gives me chills thinking about it. As Ramsay says "flavor drives the memory." I haven't made ratatouille in a long time, but there was a time when I made it two or three times a week. In the film, Remy puts the sauce on the bottom and layers the vegetables. I didn't notice any eggplant, but maybe they were smaller than the ones I used to use. (how strange to be writing about the technique of a cartoon rat) At first I thought he covered it with pastry, but it turned out to be parchment, en papiotte. Seems the genious cartoon rat steeped the ingredients, how he did the plate presentation is beyond me, but I liked the single chive balanced on top.

Linser, it was either Denby or Lane, maybe you remember, who gave this one of the best reviews in the New Yorker I've ever read. Go see it, or wait for a time when we can see it together.

Emily Barton said...

All right. This is about the only movie I've really been dying to see this summer. You've absolutely convinced me, and I agree with everyone else: terrific writing here! I gather it would be a good idea to go out for a huge meal beforehand?

imichie said...

Definitly eat something before you see this movie, popcorn won't suffice. I know you would really like this film Emily, and you will want to cook after seeing it so be careful when you go to the grocery store because I found myself buying all sorts of expensive ingredients afterwards.

healingmagichands said...

We may end up watching this film sometime, since we love food.

I liked Babette's Feast alright when my older sister introduced it to me. but for sheer amazing preparation scenes, nothing can beat "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman." good story too.

imichie said...

Yes, HMH, "Eat Drink Man Woman" is great too. I love how all of these films recreate the technique and art that goes on in a kitchen. It didn't get very good reviews, but I'm mildly curious about "No Reservations" as well.