28 July 2007

Ratatouille, or, What do the critics know?

If you fear spoilers, you should probably just stop reading right now.

When I saw Ratatouille earlier this week, after I left I felt that some editor somewhere needed a bit more backbone to stand up to Brad Bird. Now I'm not quite so sure.

I was feeling a little bit ambivalent about Bird after his last film, The Incredibles, which has the very in-your-face message that excellence is better — "everybody's special" means nobody is. Aristotle would have grokked this, but in contemporary culture this out-loud aristocratic sentiment all too often keeps company with odious political movements. But there was nothing else in the film worry me about Bird's agenda, unlike the most recent Star Wars movies, which are full of the worst sort of divine-right, aristocratic nonsense.

More than one reviewer has complained about the scene in Ratatouille where Rémy — our heroic little chef — and his father go on a trip to see what humans do to rats. They go to what I assume is supposed to be a rat-catcher's business and see dead rats hanging above boxes of poisons in the store-front window. One reviewer thought this pointless. I think it's absoultely vital for the message of this film.

The scene is at night and dark, so I wouldn't say it's gratuitously bloody or violent. But there certainly is something alarming about the scene: a dozen rats all hung from ugly, outsized traps. The arrangement is tidy and one could, if feeling a bit overheated, call the presentation ritualistic. Rémy's father has brought him to witness an atrocity.

The entire movie is about Rémy escaping the identity imposed on him by an accident of birth. Near the end of the film there's a brief scene where he declines to go home either with his family or his human companion, Linguini. The parting is friendly, and Rémy walks down the street in his own direction. For him to go his own way — being a chef and a rat — requires him to be able to not be hindered by the terrible history between humans and rats. Perhaps in the film Rémy forgives faster than any but a saint in real life could manage, but this idea, that we don't need to be enslaved by imposed identities or by history, is a powerful one I can endorse whole-heartedly.

I don't think I'm reading too much into this. The same film ends with a remarkable monologue on art criticism.

Edit: And now I see that the original work on the film was done by Jan Pinkava. What don't the Pinkavas do?

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