“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.
We’ve said before that genre doesn’t matter to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy has a place, along with high-toned drama. Quality animation rubs shoulders with science fiction and – oh, look over there! – you can find bloody horror chatting with dazzling musicals.
In America, November is dominated by Thanksgiving, a national holiday set aside to give thanks, revel in an abundance of family (and perhaps football), and to eat, eat, eat! In keeping with this theme, let us look at a member of the Ten Percent that is concerned with food and its ability to forge communities and help us build ties with each other.
Yes, I’m talking about Pixar’s 2007 gem, Ratatouille. The title is a lovely play on words, as a “ratatouille” is a French eggplant casserole – a “peasant dish” which is code for “comfort food” – and, while that kind of ratatouille does make a notable appearance in the film, the main character of Ratatouille is a creature you normally never want to see in a kitchen – a rat. But this is Pixar, so Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is an adorable critter with a huge heart and a burning drive to succeed in Paris as a high-end chef. Remy’s longing to make quality food that is beautiful and memorable, as well as being delicious, is at the heart of the film. He is aided in his quest by the ghost of his idol, Auguste Gusteau, whose bywords were that “ANYONE can cook!” (He tempers this just a little at one point, saying “What I say is true – anyone can cook . . . but only the fearless can be great!” This is an echo of the great visionary Julia Child, who demystified French cuisine for Americans and cheerfully admonished her readers and viewers to charge ahead boldly – to “be fearless!” I feel sure she would have enjoyed Ratatouille.)
Remy has allies and enemies in his quest, of course. He works with a young cook named Linguini (I kept waiting for a cousin named Pesto to show up), directing Linguini’s movements by perching on his head, carefully hidden from view under Linguini’s toque blanche and tugging on his hair to guide him. This eventually leads to nigh-disaster, but it all turns out right in the end.
The supporting cast in this film sparkles – Ian Holm is the villainous Skinner; Brad Garrett is the bluff and hearty Gusteau; Brian Dennehy is Remy’s well-meaning father, Django; and Janeane Garofalo is Colette, the lone female in the male-dominated kitchen, who teaches Linguini the basics, including the cardinal rule – “messy apron, clean sleeves.”
And then there is Peter O’Toole voicing the cadaverous restaurant critic, Anton Ego. (Don’t you love that last name?) Ego despised Gusteau’s down-home approach to cooking, preferring that it remain mysterious and out of reach of the masses. Ego is whetting his poison pen to take down the restaurant that bears Gusteau’s name. But a simple, perfectly cooked dish of ratatouille takes the haughty critic back to his childhood, when the dish represented the safety of home and a mother’s love.
For, at its best, that’s what food does for us. See, it’s not just Nana’s borscht, or Cousin Charlie’s pimento cheese, or Mam-Maw’s biscuits, or Daddy’s fried chicken. It’s home. It’s why we pull out all the stops at holiday dinners, or when the student comes home from university, or to show sympathy in times of grief. As the sand runs through the glass of our lives, we all need home.
In addition to reveling in food and how it brings people together, Ratatouille also contains what may well be the single best monologue about the symbiotic (maybe parasitic) relationship between critics and artists ever put to film.
While theoretically a “kids’ movie,” Ratatouille is thoughtful and beautiful, asking several Big Questions. Why can’t we move beyond what other people think are our limitations? Why can’t a great artist come from humble beginnings? And why is Paris so gorgeous, even in animated form? Brad Bird (who also brought us The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) and his co-director Jan Pinkava were determined to create a film that dealt head-on with the desire to create being found in the least likely of creators. Their efforts were amazingly successful. The audience actually cares about Remy and Linguini’s twin searches for meaning and belonging. Further, the hand-drawn end credits following the slick computer animation of the film feel almost like another kind of going home.
So this Thanksgiving, as you eat that second slice of pie, watch Ratatouille. It clearly deserves its place on the Ten Percent Shelf.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.