As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
Ratatouille, 2007’s brilliant exploration of French fine cooking by a rat named Remy, is a creator’s dream. Writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists of all stripes must cling to this movie tightly because it is one of the best reminders of why we do what we do.
The rat with the super sense of taste and smell was brought up in the school of the world-renowned chef Gusteau, whose famous mantra is “Anyone can cook.” Cooking is just how this film chooses to fill in the blank, but its lessons are just as applicable to whatever your creative passion might be.
Remy’s super nose is a point of pride for his father, who treats the nose as a gift as a rat naturally would: It’s a way to detect poison, imminently practical and useful to the wider community of rats. This becomes, in many ways, an avatar for the reality of most creative pursuits: For all the many things they are, practical is rarely one of them. It is one of truly human things we do, unique to only us, and even Remy the rat can recognize that.
Remy: I know I’m supposed to hate humans, but there’s something about them. They don’t just survive. They discover. They create. I mean, just look at what they do with food?
I recently got to spend time in a movie theater to interview the general manager in the midst of a very tumultuous year for film. In recent days, Warner Bros. shocked many by electing to release its entire 2021 slate of films on HBO Max in addition to theatrical releases. Numerous critics and industry-watchers are scared of what this protends for the traditional theater-going experience. Why would people elect to go into public to the very costly forum of a modern theater when they could get the same viewing experience at home with more convenience and less cost?
I realized something I suppose I’ve always known about theater-going: It’s not a practical activity. It’s expensive, needlessly so in many respects, and that expense could be greatly reduced if only we exercised a little bit of patience. For as much as the experience depends on new movies (just ask the theater owners who’ve tried to sustain business by showing old, fan-favorite films in lieu of new releases during the COVID-19 pandemic), the content is in many ways secondary. It is an experience that signals an appreciation for art and artistry. It’s a shared community, the same way that strangers in the aisles of bookstores are intrinsically tied to the others in the store as lovers of books and reading.
Remy’s desire to be a chef is not practical for him, but his gifts are undeniable. In a film littered with adult themes, this is one of the first Pixar films that gives such a clear-cut life lesson that hopefully resonated with children because its lessons are within the grasp of anyone who watches. The other films’ great moral teachings are, in many ways, out of the hands of those who watch. Life does not guarantee a viewer friendships like Buzz and Woody’s, nor does it guarantee a parent’s undying dedication and love like Marlin and Nemo. Life does not always rebound from our biggest screw-ups like it did for Flik in A Bug’s Life, and people don’t always realize that their jobs aren’t the most important thing in the world when it causes them to change who they fundamentally are like Sulley and Mike. Life’s frequent ordinariness is not supplemented by superpowers like in The Incredibles, and it doesn’t always provide the inspirations for revelatory self-assessment like new friends do for Lightning McQueen.
But for the young person (or old, for that matter) who sees this film and harbors any desire to create, build, write, compose, or cook, Ratatouille is incredibly egalitarian. You can create, regardless of your circumstances. In one of the most moving monologues in any Pixar film, the legendary and quite scary food critic Anton Ego’s final assessment of his meal prepared by a rat is a beautiful reminder to all of us who struggle to put words on a page for fear of their reception:
Ego: In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize only now do I truly understand when he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.
The new needs friends. That is one of the lines I take with me from the film, to comfort me as I embark on a career that requires us to produce for others’ consumption and vulnerable to the whims of their tastes. I remember a conversation with my ex-girlfriend as she was in the process of writing and rewriting personal statements that she hoped would catch the attention of those in the medical field. She was frustrated with the words on the page, and she was frustrated with the words that wouldn’t come to her. She felt self-doubt about what she’d written, wondering if it would communicate her purposes and if there were some other collection of words that might do it better. She told me she couldn’t imagine doing that every single day, as part of a job. It was equal parts expressing admiration for the people who work as I do and thinking we’re all crazy to subject ourselves to it.
She wasn’t wrong. It is crazy on some level. But, as Ego said, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than any criticism designating it so. So we continue to create. Maybe we’ll be ignored. Maybe we’ll be noticed for a minute and forgotten the next. It is not a practical thing we do, but there’s comfort in knowing that any of us, literally anybody, can do it nonetheless.
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