A Rat's Tale
(With Apologies for That Headline)
The story of Ratatouille is not unusual. It can be found at the center of Antz and Shark Tale—and also at the margins of Finding Nemo and Ice Age. This story is about an animal that finds itself radically opposed to the ruling characteristic of its species. In Antz, one ant fails to fit into the naturally rigid social order of its colony because it wants to be precisely what is unnatural for an ant: an individual in the democratic, Judeo-Christian sense. In Shark Tale, a boy shark rejects precisely what makes a shark a shark: being a killing machine, being mean, being to the sea what the lion is to the land. In the case of Ratatouille, the outsider is a rat that wants to be exactly what rats are not: cultured, clean, sensitive to beauty and fine foods.
With Shark Tale, the story went absolutely nowhere; with Antz, it had enough life to make a decent movie. With Ratatouille, the story is exploded into what will certainly be the best comedy of the year. Directed by Brad Bird, the man behind Pixar’s second-highest achievement, The Incredibles (the highest will always be Toy Story), and a director/writer for one of the best episodes of The Simpsons, “Krusty Gets Busted,” Ratatouille is first of all funny because a rat can never be cute. A mouse, yes; an ant, yes; even a shark can be loveable if you make it chubby. But no matter what its size (slim, fat, athletic), or how big its eyes, a rat is always disgusting.
Remy, the main rat in Ratatouille, might be blue, speak good English, and have eyes that make human (rather than rodent) expressions, but there’s just enough realism in its animation, in its motions (the way it darts across a floor) and gestures (the way it sniffs things), to make you want to see it dead in a trap. And because nothing save the threat of extinction has the power to make a human taste a soup prepared by a rat, the sight of animated Parisians unwittingly eating, enjoying, and complimenting delicate dishes prepared by the dirtiest of creatures—one that lives on rubbish, shits everywhere, moves through sewers, pops up in toilet bowls—is just too much. You can’t stop laughing.
The movie begins with a tribe of rats living peacefully in the roof of a rural home occupied by an old woman. The chief of this tribe has a son, Remy (oddly enough, the tribe has no females). Remy spends his days and nights dreaming about Gusteau, a popular Parisian chef with a simple philosophy for all: Anyone can be a good cook. In Remy’s mind, Gusteau’s “anyone” includes him, a rat.
Remy is a snob. Like humans, he is revolted by the way his kind lives and eats. He looks down on them, on their dirty habits and their total indifference to the condition of whatever it is they are eating. At bottom, Remy is a self-hater. He hates what he is. What he wants to be is what hates him the most: a human being. And a rat that loves humans is a rat that hates itself in the most radical way.
When a catastrophe forces the tribe to flee to Paris, Remy finds the opportunity to visit Gusteau’s famous restaurant. But Gusteau is dead (he committed suicide after receiving a bad review) and the business is being run into the ground by a hack (Chef Skinner). Within a matter of days, Remy figures out a way to cook in Gusteau’s restaurant and restore its reputation.
The movie ends on a road that leads to the Promised Land. Remy has shown his tribe that they can become more than just filthy rodents. Indeed, with enough effort, enough commitment, they can become as sophisticated and hygienic as the highest animal in the known universe: human beings. And one day in the future, in the Promised Land, rats will no longer have to run around in the shadows, dodging traps and eating garbage, but will eat at restaurants that serve fresh foods and fine dishes prepared by talented chefs. Tomorrow is a brighter day for rats.