A Taste of Reel Food: Ratatouille (2007)

PicMonkey CollageA Taste of Reel Food will be a regular segment of Sweets and Brains wherein I relate the presence of food in cinema to wider issues in society. For you to really taste Reel Food, Marnelli will later attempt to make the iconic dishes featured in the films I have analysed.

Making food is definitely an art, and like all art, it exists within an institution. But where there is an established system, there is always a desire to rebel. Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava’s animation film Ratatouille uses this premise in portraying its rat hero Remy’s journey from the rubbish bins to the gourmet kitchen. Food isn’t in the film just to make you hungry –  the hierarchy that surrounds the expertise of food in haute cuisine is used as a metaphor for the animator’s desire to challenge hierarchy in the film and art industry.

I’ll be talking about plot and character details, inevitably making this blog post a big plate of spoilers. So all of you who haven’t seen this movie, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you 🙂

Remy the artist

One of the most significant aspects of Ratatouille that shows the metaphorical values of haute cuisine is the characterisation of Remy. In the big food world Remy is the underdog (underrat seems redundant). His rat clan doesn’t take his interest in cuisine seriously, and the fact that he’s a rat hinders him from becoming a recognised chef. To be able to do what he loves to do, he has to hide in kitchens and eventually hide under the naive Linguini’s chef hat. As the audience we are quick to give Remy credit for his skills in cooking via the puppeteering of Linguini. But in majority of the film, Remy and his art are left unrecognised. His rebellion against the cuisine system is kept secret.

The animator, like Remy, may experience the same kind of suppression. Why? Well, it’s because it goes something like this.

It’s common to regard animation as a lower art form than live action in the film industry. Though many animated films are targeted at adults and children alike, you hear quite often that they are ‘just for kids’ and unintellectual. Animated films are seldom given credit in film awards. When they do, they are placed in the Animation category, segregated from live action films. The debasing of animation also occurs in regards of the art industry. As old-fashioned as it sounds, many still prefer art done ‘naturally’, by hand, and the fact that animation is done through computers and new technology, makes it less of an art.

By keeping that in mind, you can see how Remy stands in for the animator. Remy really just wants to make good food, the same way the animator just wants to make good art. Both, however, are unrecognised and debased because of the power structures that exist.

If Remy is the artist with a wooden spoon as his paintbrush, why can’t the film/art industry see the animator as the artist with a software as his paintbrush?

The snobs of the industry

Ratatouille puts emphasis on the hierarchy in cuisine to point out the power structure in the art and film industries, as seen through the representations of Anton Ego and Skinner. Both characters’ antagonistic qualities are reinforced by their caricature-like appearance. Ego’s paleness and lankiness contribute to his intimidating aura. His being a harsh food critic can be accounted for his rigid, old-fashioned views about cuisine. He is the industry’s vampire stuck in the past; his criticism sucks life out, given that he has wrecked the career of the free-spirited Gusteau.

On the other hand, Skinner being very vertically challenged doesn’t only make him look silly, but also implies a shortness of perception. His capitalist ethics show the potential of making Gusteau’s dining legacy into a laughable fast-food franchise. Also, when Skinner finds out that Remy is behind Linguini’s talent, he becomes bent on exposing the ‘fraud’, instead of recognising the skills of the Little Chef.

Both characters are influential entities of the food industry, but their portrayals suggest flaws in the presence of power structures. You can relate that to how the creators of the movie would want their audience to see the flaws of the snobbery of the art elite and their followers.

“The rebels must be contained!” says the industry.

A happy ending?

By the end of the film, Linguini raises the curtain for Remy’s food puppeteering, and Ego finds out about this and is humbled. Although Gusteau’s restaurant is closed down because of rat infestation, Remy and Linguini continue working together in making food. Remy runs an incognito rat restaurant above the cafe where Linguini works happily as a waiter. So is everyone happy? Has the hierarchy in haute cuisine come down as a result of Remy’s rebellion?

Yes, maybe. And for the latter, it’s definitely a NO.

While Remy is less disadvantaged by the end of the film, he still remains behind-the-scenes. He has earned Ego’s and his rat clan’s respect as a chef, but he is still left unrecognised by the mainstream.

Perhaps the creators of Ratatouille aimed to present an ending that somehow gave credit to the ambitious rebel, but at the same time imply that the credit given to the rebel is not enough still. As long as the rebel continues to create their art within the system of the industry, the hierarchy remains unmoved.

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5 thoughts on “A Taste of Reel Food: Ratatouille (2007)

  1. Beautiful interpretation of Ratatouille, Christienne. I’ve seen the movie several times, but never connected all of the dots in the way you’ve outlined here. The segregation of animated films reminds me of a particular Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where, in a layered way, the author depicts his similar struggles to be recognized as a true artist: http://householddaily.blogspot.com/2005/10/high-art-low-art-and-not-art.html

    But, while thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that some of the best creativity is born from the constraints that industry places on artists, and more importantly, the rebellion that occurs because of it. Which prompts the question, do artists rebel because institutions prevent them from flexing their creative muscle, or is the rebellion itself the art?

    If it’s the former, and there were no institutional standard, then we wouldn’t have a point of reference to know what broke their mold and was truly innovative. If it’s the latter, and rebellion is the art, then the rebellion could never exist without an industry to rebel against – institutionalized society is the fuel for creativity. So, in a way, creativity owes a thank you to the snobs, regardless of how that question is answered.

    Beyond that, I think the ending of the movie is appropriate. I don’t think Remy wanted to be overly famous for his work, or to tear down the whole industry. His goal was to be happy as a chef, and for his peers to appreciate his talents. He found a way to overcome the handicaps that threatened to stop him from achieving those goals, and that’s what made him happy. Mainstream fame really shouldn’t be the artist’s goal – widespread popularity just a side effect that the traditional industry assigns to the artist.

    Thanks for posing such interesting ideas, Christienne – this was fun to think about!

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment!

      I think that the struggle is what makes making art worthwhile. I completely agree with what you said about the controls of society as fuel for creativity! To be completely free to express whatever isn’t really possible, and somehow I’m glad that’s the case. Everything will be free-flowing, yes, but there won’t be anything that creates tension or some form of spark in art. Art would just be as banal as flossing your teeth or combing your hair.

      I also think you make a great point about the ending. But I’m one of those people who will forever be suspicious of the notion of being contented, so I tend to read endings like in Ratatouille as a manifestation of surrender. A nice little (maybe not so little) addition i’d like to make to the movie is a sequel or a reference to a sequel wherein Remy discovers that there are other rat-run restaurants around the world and that they will soon compete with each other to be the next top restaurant. It would follow up with industry pressures,etc. But hahah that’s just me!

      1. Yeah, on being content, I suppose I was looking at the film from a “happily ever after” standpoint. But, when you think about it, is “happily every after” really achievable? Or, is the tension, struggle, and resulting spark of creativity what makes us happy and optimistic? I may never figure that out, but this is awesome – just as Remy and Linguine convinced Ego to appreciate an alternate view, you’ve served me a delightful dish of perspective as well. (Secretly, that’s what I think defines a genuine artist.) Thank you 🙂

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