It would be amazing to have been in the room when Ratatouille was first pitched. What was the initial reaction to the idea of an animated film that tells a story about cooking, and stars a rat as the main character?
The fact that Pixar not only took a chance and moved forward with this plot but then transformed it into a funny, entertaining, and inspirational movie is still amazing sixteen years after Ratatouille’s debut.
The concept for the film first surfaced at Pixar in 2000 thanks to Jan Pinkava, who had been at Pixar since 1993 and had directed the Oscar-winning 1997 short Geri’s Game. In addition to the core story, Pinkava came up with the design and the sets and characters.
When Pinkava was struggling with the plot, Pixar brought in Brad Bird (fresh off of The Incredibles), who would ultimately be credited as the director of Ratatouille. In 2007, Bird discussed the challenges and sensitivities around coming aboard a project this way with Entertainment Weekly, saying, “Jan is very talented. But at a certain point, the curtain is going to come up, and you know, it has to be a vision that everyone can feel confident in. It wasn’t like Jan ever had a version that he was happy with. He didn’t. And he was constantly trying to find it. Look, movies are hard. They’re technological, but it’s not an exact science…and sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
The final film would center on a Rat named Remy, who has what seems to be an unattainable dream of being a great chef. When Remy is separated from the rest of his rat family and washed away in the sewer, he finds himself at the restaurant founded by his hero, renowned Chef Auguste Gusteau.
Here he meets and befriends Linguini, the young man whose job is to take out the garbage at the restaurant. Through an incident, Remy winds up saving soup that Linguini had almost ruined, and the other chefs in the restaurant believe that Linguini is a great chef.
Through a partnership that involves Remy hiding under Linguini’s chef hat, Gusteau’s becomes a trendy restaurant, thanks to their recipes. But, with a villainous Chef named Skinner looking to get his hands on the restaurant and a famous, discerning critic, Anton Ego, coming to review the food, what will happen to Gusteau’s.
The Pixar artists consulted with gourmet chefs for the scenes in Ratatouille in which the meals are prepared. The result is amazingly tactile, always making the viewer hungry, even after one realizes that they’re looking at pixels, not pasta.
Additionally, members of the team spent a week in Paris to get a better sense of the city, which is most definitely reflected in Ratatouille. From a stunning, quiet moment in which Remy looks out at the “city of lights” at night to a chase scene with Skinner speeding through the small streets on a scooter, there is a fantastic sense of the film being shot on location in this computer-animated world.
Ian Holm drips malevolence as the voice of the troll-like Skinner, and Peter O’Toole’s rich voice flows smoothly from the reed-like critic Anton Ego. Brian Dennehy is Django, Remy’s gruff dad, and also in the cast (and putting their best French accent forward) is Janeane Garofalo as chef Colette, who becomes Linguini’s love interest, and Brad Garrett as the ghost of Gusteau.
Released on June 29th, 2007, it was hailed by critics and audiences (it earned over $600 million at the worldwide box-office), and the film later received an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Sixteen years later, Ratatouille continues to be remembered not just because Pixar took a chance on making “an animated movie about cooking that stars a rat,” but also because, like all great films, the story is so much more. (And don’t think we didn’t notice its deliberate reference in this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture Everything, Everywhere, All at Once).
As Remy learns, we shouldn’t hold ourselves back from doing what we genuinely want to do, based simply on the “labels” others place upon us. Or, as Gusteau says in the film, “Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true – anyone can cook…but only the fearless can be great.”