Day By Day

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Discreet Charm Of the Snobs

Food snobs! You know who I mean – the kind of people who study the restaurant ratings in metropolitan mags, who know the names of the chefs in “quality” restaurants, who shop at Whole Foods and buy “organic” and “artisanal” products, who buy expensive kitchen utensils and actually use them from time to time; people who will happily discourse on such subjects at the drop of a hat. That’s right, the kind of people who will gladly and ostentatiously drop hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for a “dining experience” that they can then brag about to their similarly deluded friends. When I was a child, such people were rare and were generally considered the objects of ridicule or pity. Now it seems they are everywhere and exist in sufficiently large numbers to support a TV network and major film productions [not just foreign and indie projects like “Babette’s Feast” and “Sideways”].

Such people take themselves far too seriously.

However off-putting some might find such behavior, it is not in itself a bad thing. The spread of consumer snobbery beyond the narrow confines of the super-rich is a measure of the general prosperity of our nation. The inane and often offensive sensibility behind Ratatouille, a children’s cartoon designed to stroke the sensibilities of food snobs, is therefore to be tolerated if not exactly welcomed.

There is nothing particularly interesting about the film from a technical aspect. It is adequately animated and the voice acting is competent (Peter O’Toole, the exception, is wonderful). The plot is simple and hackneyed and the characters pure cardboard, but as in all children’s films, cute. The humor is pure slapstick, calculated to appeal to children and childish adults – nothing special. What sets Ratatouille apart and earns it plaudits from film critics is its informing sensibility – snobbery.

SPOILERS [although the plot is so predictable that it doesn’t matter much].

The main character is an anthropomorphized rat named Remy [voiced by Patton Oswalt]. He was born with an exquisite talent for appreciating food which sets him apart from his relatives for whom food is simply nourishment. He’s the smart kid who doesn’t really fit in. Separated from his family during a ratty food raid he discovers the world of haute cuisine – a heavenly realm to which he, as a rat, has no access. Skulking around a once famous Parisian restaurant he meets another outcast, Linguini [voiced by Lou Romano], a terminally inept young man who works as a garbage boy. Separately Remy and Linguini are doomed to fail in life – together they can become the greatest chef in Paris. Naturally, they meet cute and bond.

Tension is provided by an unscrupulous chef, Skinner [voiced by Ian Holm] who took control of the restaurant after the death of its famous owner and who is capitalizing on its reputation by churning out inferior products to be sold to the benighted masses who shop in supermarkets rather than specialty stores [I warn you, the in-your-face snobbery is hard to take]. This defines the main theme of the film. It is a paean to artisanal production and a heavy-handed condemnation of mass consumerism. Skinner comes to suspect the secret behind Linguini’s improbable success and seeks to expose it. Remy and Linguini try to maintain their secret relationship while Linguini simultaneously courts the only female chef in the kitchen, Colette [voiced by Janeane Garofolo].

Resolution comes in the form of an overbearing and seemingly sadistic famous food critic, voiced by Peter O’Toole, who delivers final judgment on all things culinary. He had previously written off the restaurant after the death of its owner and now will pass judgment on the product of the new culinary sensation, Linguini. The crisis comes when, on judgment day, Linguini’s secret is exposed and the entire restaurant staff resigns in disgust. Remy, however, recruits a substitute staff from his ratty clan and prepares a magnificent ratatouille that charms the fearsome food critic. In the denouement Remy’s concoction melts the critic’s heart to the point where he is willing to accept that he is eating a meal prepared by varmints.

By the end of the film the outcasts have become accepted (by the discerning people who count if not by the general society), artisanal production has triumphed over mass production, true love has triumphed over social ineptitude and stigma, a moral equivalence has been established between rats and humans, and adults in the audience have been reassured that their insane pretentions are indeed worthwhile. Most importantly, critics are told that for all their cantankerousness, they are really good guy softies who serve a vital function in educating the masses and promoting tolerance and the appreciation of all that is good in life. Naturally, they fell in love with Ratatouille which has become one of the highest rated films of the year.

It figures.

PS: I note that several critics praise the "camera work" in this film. Here's a clue guys, there is no such thing as "camera work" in a cartoon. What they are talking about is the interesting choices of perspective and illusory motion that the cartoon technique enables the director to make. They are indeed impressive, but no more so than Bird's previous effort, "The Incredibles".