IMDB #167 Ratatouille

Look, I'm as big of a Pixar fan as the next guy, but are you aware that there are 9 out of 11 Pixar releases in the top 250 right now (all of them except Cars and A Bug's Life, and rightly so), but just one single animated Disney film (The Lion King)? Whatup with that?

I know, the list skews more recent, that's part of the fun. But by and large, the classics are covered, and if the mid-20th-century hand-drawn Disney features aren't classic cinema I don't know what is. Get voting, people!

Anyway, back to the modern CGI renaissance with 2007's Ratatouille.

The Key Players:

Remeber Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles? It's him again! Composer Michael Giacchino also returns for duty. Jan Pinkava originated the concept, basic plot, and many elements of the art design before Bird was brought in to replace him.

Multiple celebrity voices abound, but our lead is that of perhaps Greatest Living Standup Comedian Patton Oswalt (R.I.P. Mitch Hedberg). How cool is that?

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The Story:

The premise is a simple one that takes longer than you'd expect to explain. There's just two things you're going to need to accept and move on:

1. Rats (or at least our furry little hero, Remy) can read and understand spoken English, though they cannot themselves speak.

2. A rat, sitting on your head (or at least that of our misfit human hero, Linguini) can control your arm movements by tugging patches of your hair.

Thus provide the mechanics for Remy, a gourment and natural chef, to team up with Linguini, a garbage boy in a gourmet kitchen- one can cook, the other can "appear human," and the rise to fame is inevitable.

Obstacles soon present themselves, however: a suspicious head chef, a feisty love interest, a toweringly intimidating food critic, and even the health inspector. Remy's family doesn't think much of his new, unratlike career, and Linguini doesn't know he's actually the son and heir of the deceased restaurant owner! Mystery, excitement!

Will Remy and Linguini be able to overcome our society's (or at least that of Paris, where this is all set) inherent prejucides against rats and misfits?

The Artistry:

Let's breeze past the obligatory remarks about how far CGI animation has come, shall we? Suffice it to say that Pixar still puts other studios to shame in this regard, and the little details like rat-hairs and water bubbles are nearly flawlessly rendered in Ratatouille.

The art design of the human characters I enjoyed more than any other CGI to date, nicely balancing the need for anatomical plausibility with expressive caricature (a line that Up would later fall just on the wrong side of- it seems like a movie about a talking box (Carl) and egg (Russell)).

The plot itself is a compelling double-underdog story, with the more complex themes of self-actualization that we're starting to take for granted with each Pixar realease. It might be a little overstuffed, at nearly two hours, but it has to make time for stories in both worlds, as well as multiple madcap action sequences.

You can tell the research and commitment to cooking that Bird and his team must've had- Ratatouille is a love letter to fine food as much as anything else. We get a lesson in the staff requirements and hierarchy of a gourmet kitchen, tips on efficiency as Collette teaches Linguini the ropes, a philosophical debate on the merits of improvisation, and most tellingly a subplot about how disdainful and crass microwavable, pre-cooked meals are.

That "foodie"-ness finds its way into another lesson, rife with Bird's seemingly trademark amiable elitism: that of Gusteau's proposition that "Anyone can cook." As the film clearly demonstrates, Linguini can't, while Remy can, and the lesson, as the critic Ego clarifies, is that a world-class chef can come from anywhere.

What does this mean? Much like The Incredibles, in the end we're taught to embrace those with special talents while admitting our own limitations. Misplaced pride (like Linguini's brief power tripping or Syndrome's fake robot attack) leads to disaster, sure, but what if you've got nothing to be proud of in the first place?

There's a joke in epsiode five of "Party Down"'s second season which I feel applies:

-"Who's Ayn Rand?"
-"She wrote about how awesome awesome people are."

Anyway, the voice cast is excellent as always, if a little more stuffed with superflous celebrities than you'd hope- Will Arnett? James Remar? Mostly they're well chosen, like Ian Holmes maniacal villain, Brad Garrett's jovial Gusteau, and especially Oswalt's expressive, energetic rat.


Linguini finds out the truth, and all goes well until Anton Ego arrives for his fateful review, just as Remy and Linguini fight about misplaced credit. When Linguini admits the bizarre truth to his staff, they leave in disgust (Collette returns after a bit), leaving no one to help Linguini prepare the meal that might save the restaurant.

Remy rides to the rescue with his entire clan of rats, lead by his apologetic father. They make, of course, ratatouille, wowing Anton Ego, who writes a stirring review even after they explain that a rat cooked it. A health inspector shuts down the restaurant, of course (there were rats in the kitchen), Linguini, Collette, and Remy start a new one with Ego as an investor.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher, by a rat nose. Way more fun than reading The Fountainhead, anyway.

The Legacy:

Winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and a nominee for score, screenlplay, and sound (as well as 9 Annie Awards).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

A more interesting case is this super-early teaser trailer for the film, which sets up the whole "rat in a kitchen" conflict but doesn't mention that Remy wants to be a chef (just that he's tired of eating garbage). And it seems to have an overblown, more looney-tunes like sensibility than the end result (though the knives visual made the first posters, as well).

Leftover Thoughts:

-Not sure if the shorts paired with the Pixar features count, but "Lifted" is one of the least impressive ones I've seen.

-The food critic's final review at the film's end is a nearly completely shameless pat on the head for film critics as well: " 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."

-Did you know you can see the Eiffel Tower from every single window in Paris? This is a proven fact.

Coming Up...

166. Dog Day Afternoon

165. The Secret in Their Eyes

164. The Thing


In Clint Eastwood's storied career of playing no-nonsense toughguys, and directing no-nonsense, serious films, not once has he touched upon the supernatural. It's been all western gunfights and gritty crime thrillers, alternating with Very Serious Oscar Type Movies.

Which is why Hereafter, three interwoven narratives about death and the afterlife, seemed like such a promising idea. Who wouldn't want to see Eastwood's steady hand (and Peter Morgan's lauded pen) brought to the quote unquote fantasy genre? Sure, the reviews are mixed, but watch the trailer below- it certainly seems like they're swinging for the fences with the premise.

The problem is, it's really more of a sac bunt than anything. Eastwood treats the profound questions involved with his usual straightforward frankness, but Hereafter doesn't offer any answers. It doesn't even speculate about them for too long, really.

Instead, it seems to find itself profound for raising them in the first place, even though pretty much everyone alive has asked them for pretty much all of history. It's as if Eastwood and Morgan (who's mostly written historical dramas about real things and people) had actually never seen anything involving psychics who can talk to the dead, near-death experiences, or ghosts, and thought they had truly original concepts that could do all the heavy lifting for them.


Let's break it down. Matt Damon is a John Edward-type psychic who can speak to the dead, after briefly touching a bereaved loved one. Cécile de France is a French news anchor that has a near-death experience during a tsunami in Thailand and is moved to write a book about it. And Marcus is a young boy who's just lost his twin brother, Jason, and is all sad and stuff about it (amateurs Frankie and George McLaren play the twins, but we'll refer to them by character names since I don't know which plays which).

Eastwood apparently chose to cast amateur twin actors, and it pretty much shows, all the time, whenever they say anything. But Damon and de France are superb, and flourish as most good actors do under Eastwoods fast, hands-off direction. Bryce Dallas Howard shines in a supporting role despite some awful bangs as well.

And this film looks great- the opening, which follows de France through the tsunami, is breathtaking filmmaking, even if it was all CGI (no clue). Even the brief glimpses of the afterlife, which appears to be a bright white endlesses where everyone stands four feet apart in all directions for no reason, are tasteful and hazy.

It's just that Hereafter has nothing to say. The three plots converge in the end for brief moments of predictable frustration, and then the credits come up all at once. It's not really possible to get into this without spoilers, so...


Here's Hereafter in a nutshell: during the film, Damon writes two letters. The first is a letter explaining to his brother (Jay Mohr) that he won't be helping him relaunch his profitable medium business because he can't take the bad juju (dreams, making people cry, etc) associated with his ability. The second is a letter he writes to de France after he touches her hand at a book signing, and sees not a dead loved one but a brief glimpse of her near-death tsunami. It's like three pages long and causes her to meet him in a cafe at the end of the film.

Got that? Now which letter do you suppose the film helpfully has Damon read to us via voiceover? You would hope its the second one, full of information about seeing the afterlife, the connection he feels to another important character, and the relief that he's found someone he can touch without being bugged by her dead loved ones, right?

Nope. It's the brief note to his brother, which we can easily guess says "sorry, can't do this anymore," because that's what he's been saying the WHOLE FILM. It even paraphrases the film's worst line, which is about how it's not a gift, it's a CURSE, to have this ability, boo hoo, etc.

De France reads the second letter and this real emotional music plays, like there must be some really profound stuff there, but not one clue do we get on that front.

The other main plot intersection, when little Marcus runs into Damon as well and pesters him until he does a reading, is done well enough, but offers nothing unexpected. Marcus feels sad, Damon tells him his brother says to be strong, and so on. Then Damon says Jason, the dead brother, has left. Where did he go? Marcus asks. Damon doesn't know. Even after all those readings, he doesn't know.

So that's it, then. Huh.

Eastwood's dramas sometimes have a procedural, obligatory feel, but it's easy to forgive in things like Changeling and Mystic River (a literal procedural) because they build to some intense, cathartic scenes. Hereafter builds to one scene (Damon and Marcus) that's shrug-worthy and one unread letter/brief cafe meeting- there is one weird vision (Damon's... I guess?) of the two of them kissing, but then the film literally ends on them shaking hands.

It takes away nearly all of the weight any earlier events seemed to hold. I enjoyed the subplot where Damon's gift ruins a budding relationship with Bryce Dallas Howard, his partner in a cooking class, and maybe if the film had been framed as some-sort of death-tinged romantic comedy or something the ending with de France would have been satisfying ("Who can find love with all these CRAZY GHOSTS flying around!? This fall catch Matt Damon in Paranormal Connectivity!").


There's a scene halfway through Hereafter wherein Marcus runs away from his foster parents (his mom's a junkie, much time is spent on this for no reason at all) and goes to a series of crackpots and wannabes to communicate with his dead brother. Even with another subplot (via de France's book) about how legitimate afterlife research is shunned and scoffed at, the film wants to smirk and roll its eyes at these poseurs and charlatans, too.

Too bad Hereafter is right there among them, distracting us with tsunamis and subway explosions to hide the fact that it's got nothing real to offer us.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Gotta say the marketing really failed on this one. Look at that poster up there- it's all blue with the freaky scifi lines and all. And the shadowy figure in the distance- definitely thought we'd spend more than a few seconds in the afterlife. The trailer, meanwhile, puts the tsunami two thirds of the way through, making it seem like an escalation of events rather than the trigger of one of the plot threads. It seems more like "Hey some people were curious about the afterlife AND THEN EVERYTHING BLEW UP AAAAH."

-Fun to see Bobby Baccala from The Sopranos stretching his range to play an Italian chef. Jay Mohr, meanwhile, is always a slick douchebag who wants to exploit people, in everything.

-Just so we're clear, I might have enjoyed Hereafter in spite of its lack of answers if it had not answered them in a more interesting way. It's just that it seemed to be purposefully building to de France and Damon and the little kid meeting, and then backed off when they all got in the same place and had no idea what to do. Once Damon decides to go meet de France there's a scene where he asks for her in the lobby of her hotel and she isn't there. What purpose is served by him having to leave the MacGuffin note and meet her two scenes later?

-I realized I haven't seen very many but my favorite film about the afterlife is still Wristcutters: A Love Story

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