Brad Bird's latest project for Pixar tells of a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who upon reading the cookbook of famous chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garett) wants to be a chef; Gusteau has since died of a broken heart thanks to a nasty putdown by powerful food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole, in an all-too-brief performance), and appears to Remy as a floating spirit, repeatedly consoling him with his favorite motto: "Anyone can cook!"
Remy makes his way to Gusteau's restaurant, where he meets Linguini (Lou Romano), an awkward youth applying there for a job--any job, presumably as janitor or better; Remy eventually finds his place in the restaurant under Linguini's toque, his paws tugging at the young man's scalp to control the hands marionette-style (I wondered at this--are we supposed to take the hair-pulling as some kind of mind control? Or dismiss the conceit with a Gallic shrug?) as he creates the finest dishes in Paris.
Bird took over from an idea and characters first created by the Czech-born British animator Jan Pinkava (who ended up with a co-directing credit); the result is a fairly convincing rendition of the French culinary scene, thanks to input by The French Laundry chef Thomas Keller (he designed the climactic version of the eponymous dish, which is lovingly rendered down to the slightly thickened juices dripping from precisely sliced vegetables). As celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain notes "The tiny details are astonishing: The faded burns on the cooks' wrists. The "personal histories" of the cooks." Putting aside the fact that Bourdain gets an end credits "thanks" (for 'input early in the film') he's not for the most part exaggerating--the animated cooks handle their animated knives correctly, with that curious rocking motion that's so efficient (and so much safer on the fingers), and toss their spices and condiments in that show-offy, cavalier way professionals do.
Most impressive is Gusteau, who I suspect is an allusion to the rotund Fernand Point, master of la grande cuisine, and "Father of Nouvelle Cuisine" (Bourdain writes about how when he was ten his parents once locked him in their car so that they could dine at Point's fabled La Pyramide). Point never declared that "anyone can cook," but he did serve anyone he liked regardless of their ability to pay, from the richest nobility to the humblest laborer (though Point would rather close his place down than serve Nazi officers). La Pyramide was set in the countryside, not the middle of Paris, but his spirit lives on in some of the dishes served in the movie (or rather, his spirit possibly lives in Keller, who helped design the food).
A few cooking bits seem off--the omelet Remy prepares for Linguini is way overdone in my opinion, and I don't think any self-respecting restaurant that once held three Michelin stars would ever erect a storefront sign that vulgar, bristling all over with that many light bulbs (they blink, too) on its rooftop (possibly villainous chef Skinner (Ian Holm) had the sign added--but this is never made clear). And Ego is far too rich to be a critic, at least to be one with some semblance of integrity (there are those able to amass money, sure, usually by having something going on on the side (a best-selling book, a TV show)--which isn't made clear with Ego, who's just a filmmaker's idea of a critic).
The picture also makes a few missteps storywise: I can't believe Linguini would be stupid enough to dismiss Remy for any act short of his friend actually defecating in the food (spoiling the food, yes; stealing it--hell, no!); the boy should be smart enough to know which side of his bread is buttered, and I'd sooner believe he'd cage Remy and force him to cook than ever allow the rodent to leave. And cooks are eminently pragmatic creatures; when presented with the claim that a rat is a culinary genius, I'd think it more believable that they'd at least demand a quick demonstration before walking away (you can tell Bird (or one or more of his four collaborators on the script) was taking shortcuts with the story).
Overall, I'd say the picture is the best of Pixar's recent features (their sterile Cars (2006)--a mechanical remake of the lugubrious Doc Hollywood (1991)--isn't even a serious contender), and Brad Bird easily the finest director of animated commercial features working in the United States (though I would consider his The Iron Giant--based on Ted Hughes' 1968 children's book "The Iron Man"--to be his masterpiece).
Which, after all is said and done, isn't really saying much. Ratatouille isn't a bad movie, but it's far from a great one, and I'm mystified by all the hosannas being heaped upon it. Scott in The New York Times considers it "one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film"--what, in the same league as Jacques Rivette's La Belle noiseuse (1991); Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo (1990); Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980); Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972); Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrey Rublyov (1969); Jean Luc Godard's Les Mepris (1963); Yasujiro Ozu's Ukigusa (1959); Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957), Jean Cocteau's Orphee, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve, and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950); Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), just to name just a few? Really? Ratatouille seems to be the latest example of a trend I've noticed since at least the '70s--where American animators sweat and strain to create something that perhaps might appeal to adults, only to learn that the Japanese have already done something similiar some years before, on a far smaller budget.
More, Bird and Pinkava, in choosing to depict the passion and artistry of French cooking, takes in my opinion a rather safe route; the French are certainly unmatched for their knowledge and love of food, but I believe the Japanese are nuttier in their enthusiasm, their willingness to try something--anything--different; combine this with Japan's gargantuan animation industry, and we're not talking chopped liver here.
Animated chefs? Masami Anno's TV show Chuka Ichiban (Cooking Master Boy, 1997), about a thirteen-year-old master chef named Liu Mao Tsing who has wide-ranging adventures and competes in intense face-offs (the latter possibly inspired by the TV series Ryori no tetsujin (Iron Chef, 1993)), shows a wider, wilder range of cooking than anything you see in Bird's movie, with one foot in science fiction (a chef with a fantastically sharp knife slices a beluga sturgeon open, pulls out the roe, presses the edges of the wound together, and allows the fish to swim away whole and unharmed), another in fantasy (every time a dish is presented it glows with an unearthly light; every time a judge tastes a dish he's in ecstasy, transported to another world). That said, there's a passion for food and cooking technique in this series that's rock-solid real no matter what special effect or cooking device is featured, the depiction of which sometimes approaches genuine complexity (despite the admittedly crude animation).
In one of the better episodes Mao confronts Shouan, a former star pupil of Mao's mother Pai (one of the greatest chefs in China); Shouan left Pai to travel the world and learn on his own, eventually joining the Underground Cooking Society, a feared cooking society bent on domination and power. The competition involved tofu (some of the most memorable contests often involved the most basic of ingredients), both its fermentation (which must happen overnight) and incorporation into a dish. Mao's tofu is sabotaged some time during the night, forcing him to improvise a way to ferment, cook, slice up the tofu and create his dish all in one box (you have to see it to believe it). Mao's solution is brilliant yet simple, his resulting dish a delight; Shouan's dish is genius--tofu pasta topped with a meat-like fried tofu and a tofu-based sauce. "Stereosonic tofu," Shouan called it, because the tofu is presented three ways in one dish, approaching the diner from all sides.
When the dishes are voted on, it's Mao who wins out; one reason and the strongest was that one of the judges had tasted Shouan's dish before, from Pai's restaurant, no less. The loss is a bitter blow to Shouan--he's wandered the world for years in search of techniques that would go beyond that of his former master, only to find that he's at most run (in one breathtakingly animated shot) the length and breadth of Pai's palm. The episode tellingly and even poignantly comments on the absolute hierarchy of creativity and talent (there's good talent, there's great talent and then there's talent so immense it's inevitable, practically inescapable), the need for roots and identity (you must know who you are and what you're capable of before you attempt something truly original), the love-hate relationship between a master and her prodigal pupil. Anton Ego's sudden zooming back to the supper table of his childhood is nicely done (though I could have done without the zoom), but compared to Shouan's realization of what his entire life's work was worth up to this point, Ego's flashback was mere child's play.
Then there's Mamoru Oshii's Tachiguishi retsuden (Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006), a jawdroppingly dense and at times excruciatingly funny meditation on Japanese fast-food lore, post-war history, and largely existential philosophy. A group of con men (Moongaze Ginji; Foxy Croquette O-Gin; Beefbowl Ushigoro; Hamburger Tetsu; Frankfurter Tatsu; Medium Hot Sabu (Tarantino can only dream of inventing aliases half as colorful)) visit various food stalls and noodle shops and pull elaborate scams to get out of paying for the meal; the characters are rendered as flattened, two-dimensional figures, as if they were paper cut-outs (Japan-based film critic Mark Schilling calls it kamashibai, or a story told in a series of picture cards) suddenly brought to life.
At one point the noodle shop owner declares "it's only a bowl of noodles!" Moonshine Ginji transfixes him with a glare and observes that it's not only 'a bowl of noodles,' it's a bowl of noodles made from bogus (read: inferior) ingredients--despite which Ginji, thanks to his powers of perception and imagination, is able to devour the noodles at the peak of flavor, a moment before they disappear forever. The narrator (who speaks at an relentless pace, presumably because there's so much information to convey) declares that only words can bring back that experience, and in such a way as to surpass the intensity of the original.
Now, if Bird (or any other American talent) can evoke that kind of transcendental culinary moment in an animated work, I'd be a happy (and hungry) camper.
First published in Businessworld, 7/27/07)