The final scene of Brad Bird’s The Incredibles continues to bother me. The film is, ostensibly, about how the conformity of suburban life represses our personal gifts. The Parrs (what better name for McHouse dwellers?) only lets its superpowers loose when patriarch Bob can’t let go of the old times and steps into a trap set by a madman. Yes, the superheroes were driven underground by tort reform (too many people were being “wrongly saved” by superheroes, who were evidently preyed upon by Evil Lawyers), but the Parrs superheroism takes place entirely in a evil lair inside a volcano in the Pacific Ocean. Back at the homeowners association, they’re still just members of the PTA. There’s no attempt to win the public to the side of superheroes; there’s no campaign to help people accept superheroes differences because they are beneficial to society. Instead, in the final scene, the teen son Dash is finally allowed to run in a school track meet, but his parents encourage his to finish second so that he doesn’t draw attention to his greatness. In other words, “fitting in” is more important than developing your gifts—in its conclusion, The Incredibles celebrates the comfort of suburban mediocrity. Imagine if Professor Xavier shut down the X-Mansion told the X-Men to go home and keep their mutant powers to themselves!
Ratatouille is more complex, and far better, film. Brad Bird fleshes out a social order more complex than Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, while again discussing the nature of coping with genius in the world at-large. The conclusion of The Incredibles suggests that genius should be suppressed so not to upset the social order; Ratatouille suggests that the genius should be expressed precisely to upset the social order—and the social order needs to embrace the change. Bird is not just talking about the closed world of a prep school (why doesn’t Hogwarts just realize that Harry’s always right!), but the layers of society that, in themselves, are self-contained hierarchies.
Our hero, Remy (Patton Oswalt), is a rat with exceptional powers of smell. He uses his gift to turn garbage into delicacy, stirring together leftovers with the zeal of Emeril tossing basil into a marinara. His father, Django (Brian Dennehy) is a chieftain of sorts, the leader of a horde of scavenger rats who collect food from trashcans to share amongst the families of the tribe. But Remy reads about cooking; his hero is French chef extraordinaire Gusteau, a democratic virtuoso whose motto is “Anyone can cook!” Like Mario Batali digging into some Ragu, Remy is disgusted by this life. His slovenly, good-natured oaf of a brother, Emile (Peter Sohn) tries to help Remy sneak into the spice rack, which ends up with a screaming old woman and an avalanche of rats falling from her walls. Remy’s secret comes out, and he’s immediately put to good use as a poison checker.
Circumstances lead to Paris, and the question: Can a cartoon have cinematography? Remy ends up in the canals of Paris, his view of the Eiffel Tower fogged over like a Truffaut film. He finds a pile dead rats filmed like something out of Schindler’s List. Nonetheless, he ends up in kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant, who, since his death from a heart attack after a negative review, is run by his twirling-mustache sous-chef Skinner. Remy helps an busboy, whose mother was owed a favor, create a superior soup, and they embark on a Cyrano de Bergerac relationship.
It sounds far-fetched, and of course it is. But, within the logic created by the cartoon, the plot passes well enough. What’s more interesting is the way Bird teases out the relationships and power struggles within the kitchen. All our lowly cooks looking to make their mark, but they ferociously guard their hard-won territory—like soldiers who spent two weeks winning fifty yards in trench warfare. Some are at the top of the food chain by pure seniority, but have maxed out their talent and will sabotage all comers. Others have more talent but aren’t top rank—just talented enough to be painfully aware of their limits. And then there’s the new genius. Pressing down on the chefs are the elite class of business owners and elitist critics who open or close doors at their own will or whim.
Bird explores each of these social classes horizontally and vertically—that is, the rivalries and relationships within each class, and how each class exerts pressure on the other. In short, Brad Bird has made an animated Altman film. He charts the challenges of a genius as he rises in rank, and ultimately arrives at a far more satisfying and consistent moral than that of The Incredibles. The last word goes to the gloriously-named food critic Anton Ego, who composes his reviews while sitting in front of a glacier-tall pipe organ. Ego is drawn narrow and acutely-angled, dressed in black—you get the sense that if Anton Ego rose from his crypt to review food after sunrise, he would turn to dust. The critic is a blood-sucking vampire (no offense taken, Mr. Bird) who offers the final word: “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… Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Even cartoons.