A 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.
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.
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.