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Ratatouille: A Correction to French Egalitarianism and Snobbery?

Peter Lawler’s disinclination to blog right now seems to be catching. It’s the height of summer, after all, and there are other--if not always better--things to do. One thing I’ve done that is both other and better is to see the new Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille with my kids and my young niece. I’m told that Ross Douthat gave it an unfavorable review in the print version of NR, but I haven’t been able to track down a copy in all my travels. If this is true, he couldn’t be more wrong. This is a wonderful movie and, I think there is a serious teaching to it below all the surface delight. It is, in short, a corrective to French egalitarianism and its flip side, French snobbery.

The premise for the plot is the re-discovery and restoration of the central teaching of a late, great French chef famous for his claim that "Anyone can cook." Upon his death, a low (very French) chef who was his underling takes over his restaurant and his brand--driving both into the ground by reaching always for the lowest common denominator (e.g., he puts the great Chef’s name on a line of frozen microwave food with egg rolls, corn dogs, etc.) The rat is disgusted by the garbage eating habits of his colony. He is inspired by Chef Gusteau and wants to introduce reason into the eating habits of his friends and relations. The traditionalists among them--most of all, his father--shoot him down. An accident leads him to take up life anew in--of all places--Chef Gusteau’s restaurant. He assists a young and hapless employee in such a way as to make him a celebrated chef. This witless (though very good) "chef" turns out to be (despite his cooking roots) pretty useless in the kitchen. But with guidance he develops other skills and manages to hold his own in the kitchen. There is also a great "restaurant critic" who is like the political philosopher apart from the political order, examining and pronouncing upon the order, but never fully taking it in. To reignite his passion the rat prepares him a fabulous ratatouille dish--that reminds him of his childhood, his humble origins, and his need for more than pure criticism (or philosophy). In the end, it is clear the central teaching of Chef Gusteau is more deeply understood by all--anyone can cook, they agree, and while not everyone can be a great cook, a great cook can come from anywhere.

Discussions - 2 Comments

I LOVED Ratatouille--it made me want to head immediately into my kitchen and cook for days. Douthat's review (which you may be able to fine here if this link goes through) is actually fairly mild. He thinks some of the characters are not fully developed. Fair enough. But he does say that "Ratatouille is in many ways a gorgeous and lively entertainment. . . I’m making Ratatouille sound worse than it is: The movie is beautiful in a way that no Pixar effort has been; its animation has a depth and detail that has to be seen to be believed, and Bird’s vision of Paris is as lovely as any portrait of that city in recent cinema."

Right now, of course, I am on countdown for The Simpson's Movie. Donuts anyone?

I like Ratatouille ... very much, in fact. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a great movie. I reserve that rating for movies I feel compelled to watch again and again.

Several observations about this movie:


  • The computer animation was strikingly good. In earlier animation films I found myself aware of the animation throughout the movie. But with Ratatouille my sense of watching a computer generated film faded away.
  • The animators did a superb job of using the eyes of the characters to convey emotions. Often in a very understated way.
  • The humor was, at times, very clever. And again, understated.

Personally, I found the movie to drag just a bit in the middle ... enough so that I glanced at my watch. But I was rewarded by the scene when the Ratatouille was served up to the restaurant critic. Beautiful stuff.

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