“Anyone can cook,” is the quote most viewers leave the film with, and director Brad Bird lets the themes represented by this philosophy—nothing is impossible, anyone and everyone is capable of reinvention—run wild throughout the picture. But there’s another quote, one that comes very early in Ratatouille, that sums up both what the film is about and the true breadth of Bird’s accomplishment. After all, this is a film about a rat who tries and sort of succeeds in becoming a gourmet Parisian chef, and his journey is completely, objectively believable.
Here are the words of our hero’s idol, the late chef Auguste Gusteau: “You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true—anyone can cook. But only the fearless can be great.”
Only the fearless can be great. Remy certainly is. From the start, he’s depicted as reckless, putting himself and his family at risk for what, cooking? Reading? It’s an unfathomable prospect—just shut up and eat your garbage, he’s told—but he acts with bold impunity, stealing ingredients from a kitchen. His fearlessness is captured in one single shot—bolting away from a shotgun-wielding old lady with his favorite cookbook draped over his entire body. And while all this courage leads to short-term chaos, it sets in motion a larger series of events that ends with his dreams coming true.
Linguini acts fearlessly. What other word could one use to describe a plan as hair-brained as the one he cooks up (no pun intended) with his new rat friend? There’s an inherent fearlessness in choosing to go to work every day with a live rat under your hat, but it’s something even bigger and more frightening to blindly stake one’s name and career on a rodent’s senses of taste and smell, as well as his ability to pull Linguini’s hair. But this goofy human doesn’t accept his heretofore uninspired way of living. He goes for it with the rat and ends up a respected restaurateur and in a relationship with the woman of his dreams.
Maybe the most fearless individual—real or fictional—involved in the entire project is Bird. He was a young director with two terrific animated features under his belt—The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Both are steeped in fantasy to an extent, but Ratatouille really is grounded in the real world—despite the bonkers premise—and that was uncharted territory for Pixar. Its films featured human characters, of course—Andy and his family from the Toy Story films, Boo from Monsters, Inc., the Parr family of The Incredibles, and so on—but there was an otherworldliness to all these films. Ratatouille asks a lot of its viewers because it isn’t otherworldly, but Bird’s confidence in himself, those around him, and what he’s created is apparent in every frame.
Disney/Pixar, too, acted fearlessly when it greenlit such a project. There was some concern, of course, that a rat as the lead in a family movie wouldn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Certainly, coming off Cars, a merchandising phenomenon, there was concern over revenue from toys and other licensed products. And yes, in that respect, Ratatouille was a minor disappointment, though it miraculously crossed $200 million at the domestic box office. But the studio, which has started to lean on franchises and familiarity in recent years and in the near future, showed it wasn’t afraid to roll the dice. Ratatouille was rewarded with some of the best reviews of any Pixar movie and an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, among many other accolades.
The film ends on a note that so rewards its characters’ fearlessness that it makes this theme jump off the screen at you and linger. Remy is a chef at his own restaurant. Linguini runs the floor. His love, Colette, cooks with Remy, whose family now has a safe (and delicious) place to call home. Even Ego, a villain, puts his reputation on the line to speak positively toward this amazing chef and his food. It’s an uplifting, lovely film that started Pixar’s greatest run of films to date—a run that includes other bold, original films about taking chances like WALL-E and Up—but none is as good as Ratatouille. None is as fearless.
— John Gilpatrick