Ratatouille as a Lesson in Non-Elitism

I just finished watching Ratatouille on DVD. This is the second time I've seen the movie (the first time was in the theatre). It usually takes me two to three viewings before I feel comfortable declaring a definite opinion on a movie which is why you will never see me as a New York Times movie critic (and why I haven't reviewed Caspian on my blog yet).

I have boundless respect for Pixar and for John Lasseter (head of Pixar) in particular. Every production Pixar creates is thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing and although some are better than others, none of them, in my view, are actually bad. However, although I enjoyed Ratatouille the first time, I can't say I was bowled over by it.

The second viewing gave me a chance to reflect more on the plot and theme of the movie. First of all, I would be surprised that Pixar marketed the movie specifically to children if it wasn't for the fact that in the United States (as opposed to Japan), animation is automatically (and erroneously) equated with a juvenile audience. In any case, I think Ratatouille deserves a broader audience.

The plot of Ratatouille is complex as is the dialog. There is NO attempt to "talk down" the dialog or even, as in Toy Story and Shrek, to keep the plot dialog basic while throwing in funny and more complex subtext. All of Ratatouille's dialog demands close attention. Still, it is possible that for young children, the images carry most of the story. And I happen to believe that while a child may get bored with an overly complex work (i.e., War & Peace), complexity doesn't automatically hurt a child's appreciation of a film or book: even if the child doesn't understand every plot point, innuendo, or theme, the child still responds to the film or book's created world and the human tensions within it.

Likewise, I think a child can appreciate the rather complex theme of Ratatouille, especially since the theme has multiple levels. When I first saw the movie, my English-teacher's brain was mislead by Gusteau's slogan, "Everyone can cook." I jumped to the conclusion that the movie was another one of those Disney films about someone trying and trying and trying until he or she achieves her goal! The Little Engine That Could, version 3,025.

But really, Gusteau's slogan should be "Everyone may cook" or, rather, "Everyone with talent should have the right to cook." In other words, Gusteau's point is not "hey, if you just try, try, try again, you can make it" (after all, Linguini freely admits at the end of the movie that he has absolutely no talent); rather, Gusteau is challenging the position of elitists.

"Everyone can cook" as in EVERYONE. Although Remy is the ultimate example of this, there are constant and sometimes subtle references to Gusteau's slogan throughout the entire movie: Colette challenges Linguini to doubt her talent (and her chutzpah) because she is a woman in a "man's world"; Skinner deplores Linguini's achievements because he is (1) a garbage boy and (2) untrained. Elitism--specifically the elitism that claims superiority for reasons other than talent (I have the right schooling; I know the right people; I belong to the right class/clique/political party)--is being attacked. In this context, Ego's name, of course, is a dead giveaway. His critiques (until the very end of the movie) aren't about enjoyment, pleasure, the fun of the thing; they are all about ego.

What makes Ratatouille, like so many Pixar films, unusual is that the issue of anti-elitism is not allowed to stop there. Yes, attacking elitism is great, but the writers force Remy to examine his budding anti-elitism. Will it (like it has for so many angsty college graduates) simply make Remy an anti-elitist elitist? Because Remy's family doesn't really understand or care about his talent does that mean they are stupid, capitalist, thieving philistines who should be shoved out of his life as quickly as possible?

Not at all. Remy's brother Emile will never lose his taste for Ramen noodles, tater tots, and Hostess cupcakes. The guy just isn't a gourmet. But he loves his brother, and his brother loves him, so . . . what does it matter? In fact, Brad Bird, the writer and director of Ratatouille, attempts to answer that question: Why does Remy's talent matter (if not for elitist reasons)? His answer: Remy's talent isn't about being better than other people; it's about doing something that will add to the world.

I like that because it bypasses the whole elitist versus self-esteem-for-everyone argument. (I dislike the first position and consider the second counter-productive.) In my thesis, I argue that people enjoy artistic works because those works enable them to use their creativity, but I also argue that creativity is a very broad desire. Speaking of those college grads, creativity does not (necessarily) mean "feeling angst and staring at my navel." Here's what I wrote in the second chapter of my thesis:
Creativity is not a specialized right-brained activity, reserved for artists, poets, and performers. People want to create all kinds of things: loving families, good filing systems, decent web sites, tasty treats, well-groomed animals, a trusty lesson plan. How that desire plays out may very well be influenced by social, cultural environments and institutions but votary theory [my theory that I present in my thesis] postulates its existence regardless of external frameworks. The creative desire like any human desire (envy, hate, love) exists throughout time and history. The modes of its expression are influenced by context but context does not determine the desire. A contemporary Shakespeare would not, perhaps, write plays (unless he teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber); that a contemporary Shakespeare would have creative impulses I have no doubt.
In any case, all this thought about what constitutes talent and how it should be handled is extremely impressive for a movie that is, ostensibly, a light children's film, but then I have always found designations for films and books to be more confining than truthful. (I have to be careful about this as a teacher, however; I am perfectly willing to bring any writing to the table if I think it is good and will help my students. My students are not so broad-minded, and I have to explain to them that I'm not using children's literature because I think they aren't smart enough to handle "adult" material; I am using children's literature because it is usually better written than so-called adult material. "You can fake out an adult with big words and highfalutin' sounding sentences," I say. "You can't do that with kids. If you can't communicate clearly with kids, your writing just won't work.")

Back to Ratatouille: I think movies have exhibited a shift in perspective over the past few years, starting with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the protagonist's desire to grow is not immediately (and inevitably) pitted against the protagonist's family or culture. Compromises are presented, and the protagonist usually ends not by riding off, alone and self-satisfied, into the sunset but remaining, though changed, within the family/cultural circle. Which solution is, whether in a movie for children or for adults, far more mature.



William Morris said...

Great analysis, Kate.

Add in The Incredibles, and one realizes that there's some fascinating commentary on talent and elitism coming out of Pixar.

Eugene said...

Or as Philip Pullman puts it: "In a book for children you can't put the plot on hold while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your readers are not sophisticated. They've got more important things in mind than your dazzling skill with wordplay. They want to know what happens next."

I also can't resist the urge to quote myself: "Look at the roots, Milada told herself. Look at where the tree took hold. The engineer was still at work on his Sistine Chapel, digging the foundations by hand. When he was gone he wanted his life to say: I made something, I created something, I left something real behind in the world."

a Calvinist preacher said...

Great. Now I have to watch the blasted thing.

Isn't there a book version?

Kate Woodbury said...

Well, there are all the movie-based coloring books, picture books, activity books, books with audio, books without audio, books with action figures, board books, easy-to-read books, chapter books . . .

Actually, I don't mind the commercialization (go capitalism!) although occasionally it bugs me that Disney knows it can earn back its money on "extras" no matter how horrible the actual movie is.

On the other hand, being able to earn back money on "extras" means Disney and other studios can afford to take risks--which is good for the industry.

a calvinist preacher said...

I've watched it now. The dialogue is good, and the final "review" by Ego is the central message of the movie, I think. The animation is quality and some of the sight gags they draw are precious. For all that, the movie kind of plods along quite predictably and I had a hard time not buzzing ahead like a teenager listening to a fatherly lecture.

The DVD we borrowed from the library, however, also had some excellent shorts, and the dual interview with the chef and head animator made the experience worth the trouble. What they had to say about leadership, passion, the artistry of any endeavor, and the pursuit of excellence were very worth hearing.