Earlier this year I saw Paris J’Taime, 22 short films by 22 directors (Gus Van Sant, Alexander Payne, The Coen Bros., Gerard Depardieu, etc.), all about love and guess what city? They were trifles, mostly, as they should be. Pleasant and touching looks at the City of Light — if it wasn’t commissioned by the Paris Tourist Bureau then they just got a freebie. What I remember most is Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara and Fanny Ardant (right) and Bob Hoskins. Not only are they great actors but they were all portraying something almost never seen in American movies: Passionate crazy love among men and women of certain age.
Paris J’Taime is postcards from Paris. Ratatouille is the novel. Its story and sense of place is both deep and surprising. Unlike other Pixar movies, this was actually a movie I’d never seen before. I love Pixar and think they have made some of the best movies I’ve ever seen but the others were all riffs on familiar themes. Toy Story is a buddy movie — a great buddy movie to be sure — but still we knew going in that the Woody and Buzz were going to wind up as friends. Finding Nemo is a superb story of love, loss and letting-go, but even so I’d seen its basic idea before (for more of my thoughts about Nemo go here). Ratatouille, the story of a rat who becomes a chef, could easily have been another “fish-out-of-water makes good” movie but it isn’t.
(WARNING: Lots of spoilers below)
It never takes the obvious route. It is never hack (which is comedians’ name for the easy and cliche). It isn’t “HEARTWARMING.” Every choice made by the people involved is true to the story and the characters and not just what the audience expects. As a result it gives the audience so much more than mere easy laughs. The big challenge that our hero (voiced by the wonderful Patton Oswalt) overcomes is not will he become a chef, it’s how to make peace between being a rat AND being a chef. When his family comes to his aid it’s not a big sweeping emotional moment, it’s a much more realistic “yeah we’re family and this is what family does even when they’re angry at each other” moment. In other words: It’s a true moment, not a Hollywood one.
One of Ratatouille’s greatest strengths is that it never forgets that rats and people eating food are not something that go together. Even when the rats ride to the rescue and run the kitchen, the movie is smart enough to include a stomach-jarring shot of rodents swarming. If this had been made just by Disney Ratatouille would have had an ending where the restaurant is saved, the rat and the human both get the girl and snoooooore. That sort of happens, but not in the predictable way that ruined so many of Disney’s later animated movies.
Also it’s hard to imagine the later Disney movies including the scene where our hero and his father walk by the exterminator’s shop in the Marais whose window is decorated with dead rats in traps. (I’ve been by that store a number of times, it is quite wonderful.) Pre-Pixar animation at Disney long ago gave up being willing to actually upset the audience. For all that Lion King was willing to show the father’s death, it did it without the terror and darkness that makes Pinocchio one of the greatest and scariest movies I’ve ever seen.
The only complaint I have with the movie has to do with its marketing. Disney/Pixar missed out on the perfect tie-in: A celebration of the wonderful Musée des égouts de Paris, the museum of the sewers of Paris. It is a truly unique place and the only museum in Paris whose gift shop already had plushy rats in stock.