Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Ratatouille": Of rats and transformation

Images: Pixar
When I made that French Chicken Stew last weekend, I couldn't help but think of Ratatouille, the animated story of Remy, a rat with a gift for chefing who joins forces with a young, upcoming want-to-be chef to bring back the reputation of a restaurant in Paris. The film's become an enjoyable favorite of mine and my kids. I particularly love the scene where Remy uses light and color to describe taste and I appreciate how the film treats cooking as a gift--and how the use of our gifts affects those around us. And I'm still moved by one particular moment near the end of the film that has do with that kind of transformation.

In this scene, Remy works with his human friend Alfredo Linguini to create a dish of Ratatouille that will wow an egotistical critic (aptly named Anton Ego and wonderfully voiced by Peter O’Toole) who has come with full-intention to tank the restaurant’s reputation. In a beautifully animated moment, Ego takes a bite of the dish and his hardened, angry, scowling face melts into wonder tinged with longing. Then his face morphs into a sad, boyhood Anton in his childhood home, and we watch him relive the moment his mother serves him the same dish to comfort him.

When we see present-day Anton again, his face and eyes have softened—permanently, we realize. He’s changed. As if the taste of the food wasn’t enough of a transformation, later Remy’s human friends explain to the critic that it was a rat who made the food. That’s a lot to swallow. But the experience he’s just had is too strong to dismiss.

So, Anton writes his review, a moment that shows just how deep his transformation went:

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 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. 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 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 that only now do I truly understand what 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.
There’s some good lines in this piece, but I particularly resonated with this one: “there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” We are all critics in our own ways, be it of our fields of expertise, culture, friends, family or countless other things. This idea that we are willing to think outside the box and recognize something (or someone) pure, good, beautiful, out of the ordinary, new and outside of our normal experience—and to risk the rejection of our friends or the pressure of others to maintain the status quo in defending it (or them)—is something of which we need to be reminded. It is easy to go day-after-day in the same way of seeing, processing and behaving. But if we pay attention, let go of our expectations of how things should be and look around to see what God is up to in the people around us, we may be able to experience something of what Anton did in Ratatouille.

There are a lot of other moments and themes dealing with transformation running through this film, but this moment was one of the more powerful to me. And, like Anton, I'm sure I'll be returning to see Remy.

Note: This review is an edited version of one that originally appeared on my other blog: In the open space: God & culture.

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