I dislike computer-generated images which attempt to reproduce the physicality of a real camera, such as rattling when a building collapses nearby, unless the point of view is supposed to be that of a documentarian’s camera. But I also dislike, at the other end of the spectrum, the impersonal, flawlessly smooth movements that plague most 90s attempts at CG but can still be seen in the sweeping overhead shots in Lord of the Rings and very low budget CG films like Hoodwinked. Ideally computer-generated films should exploit the absence of a camera’s physical limitations rather than recreate them.
So it is a delight that Ratatouille does precisely this, not just by letting the virtual camera fit into the very small spaces accessible to the hero, but also by very long “takes” that, because of a rat’s great acceleration relative to size and ability to turn on a dime, would be impossible with a physical camera, even if a magnified set were built. Such shots might be possible with a track such as those used for speed skating coverage but not without limiting the camera’s field of vision. What Brad Bird and co. have created is the virtual equivalent of a rodent-operated Steadicam, and the numerous shots keeping up with Remy’s very fast escapades are the highlights of the film, triumphantly demonstrating why digital animation is the only medium for this story which could not have been made like Stuart Little.
Within the first three minutes the film has already announced its true subject as what it means to be human through the vehicle of an animal who admires humans for the fact that food is more than fuel to them. Thus cooking becomes a metaphor for all gratuitous human activities, from the arts to sports (but primarily the arts), that have no survival value but give value to survival. Though all of the arts — especially collaborative ones and those involving an element of craft — are necessarily implicit in the film’s statements about cooking, it is movie-making in particular that is the most pungent ingredient of the film’s metaphorical ratatouille.
Jeffrey Overstreet has already observed (beware of spoilers) the film’s thinly veiled allegory in which the popular chef Auguste Gusteau represents Walt Disney. Tellingly, Gusteau is the only character in the film animated on a two-dimensional surface. Meanwhile Remy the Rat, the closest relative of the Mouse, can be seen as a proxy for Pixar or for Bird himself (a movie about a gourmand pigeon would have been just too bald).
Therefore it seems the human janitor Linguini represents digital technology in general, which like all tools is completely artless by nature but when manipulated by talented hands is capable of extraordinary creation. It cannot be accidental that he begins as a mop-handler (Pixar developed the digital painting technology Disney used in The Little Mermaid and all subsequent cell animated features) whose primary purpose is to clean up (Photoshop debuted simultaneously) and ends the movie as a waiter — literally the medium by which the dish is delivered — heralding the era of digital distribution. Meanwhile the kitchen becomes staffed by technicians who are excellent at microtasks but still take direction from a single creative genius.
On all levels, especially Ratatouille’s success as a great story in its own right independent of subtext, Bird’s defense of Pixar as the true successor of Walt Disney is superior to Shyamalan’s allegorical self-justification, Lady in the Water. But nowhere is the discrepancy more apparent than in each’s treatment of their respective naysayers. (Though just whom Pixar’s might be is something of a mystery since Cars is their only movie to have a sub-90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and A Bug’s Life the only other to dip below 95%, while all three of Bird’s movies — The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille — enjoy a uniform 97%.)
In any case, Shyamalan’s treatment of criticism is cathartic, the visual equivalent of primal scream therapy, foam-sword fighting, effigy-burning: in other words, mean-spirited vicarious wish-fulfillment. Bird, however, knows that vindictive justice, poetic or otherwise, is less profound than transformative “revelation” (the movie’s term). With a visual device that instantly brought a tear to my eye, Bird perfectly evoked what many consider the highest compliment for a film of this type.
If Ratatouille has one fault it is the voice-over reading at movie’s end, but it is excusable because it is both the character’s chosen medium (a theme of the film) and the voice of Peter O’Toole. But most importantly, it is a positive note rather than a tongue-lashing or, worse yet, grisly self-indulgence, the sort of gratuity natural to beasts but unbecoming of humans and artists. Bird, 1; Shyamalan, 0.
The rat’s aspirations imply not only that animals can be raised to the upper boundaries of their nature (merely compare the human characteristics of pets vs. their wild counterparts), but also by analogy that humans themselves can behave better than their instincts or else indulge the appetites they share with beasts. The choice is a daily one which is expressed as often by critics as by creators.