Each of us has a film that we love above all others; one that has always managed to cut through our cynicism, speaking to our childlike romantic sensibilities and reminding us that life is, when at its best, beautiful beyond words. For many of us, that film is Ratatouille, Pixar's enduring classic about a rat with a love of French cuisine. For everyone else, it should be.
The year was 2005, and director and writer Brad Bird had just released The Incredibles, his first original film with Pixar. It had enamoured critics and audiences alike, earning more than six times its budget at the box office, and winning Best Animated Feature and Best Sound Editing at the Academy Awards. It was Pixar's first film with multiple wins at the Oscars, and became the first ever entirely animated film to win a Hugo.
Back at their Emeryville studios, Pixar founder John Lasseter was enlisting Bird to pick up on a cold project: Jan Pinkava's Ratatouille. Pinkava, a Czech American writer and director, had begun concepting Ratatouille back in 2000: characters and plot were developed, but Pinkava had lost the thread, and the story wasn't living up to the premise.
Bird was given 18 months to finish the project. To him it was most broadly a story about love and determination against all odds. Zoomed right in, it was about a kitchen's worst nightmare—a rat—and his insatiable desire to work in that kitchen. The perfect plot hurdle: Rat meets True Love, True Love wants to Kill Him.
Through the months that followed, Bird and colleagues studied at prestigious kitchens in Paris, recording sounds and observing Michelin-y techniques. When lurking at celebrated French chef Cyril Lignac's restaurant Le Quinzieme, animators and story developers would sit at a table with a view of the kitchen, eating their way through the menu, and watching the chefs from afar. Which is, by all measure, a good day "at work."
This attention to detail comes through in almost every scene of the film, where each shining leek and steaming pot of broth looks so realistic you can practically smell it. When Lignac finally saw the finished film, he told reporters: "When Colette teaches the young cook how you cut onions, how you cook vegetables in a pan, how you season everything, that's it! That's how we do it!"
Much of what made the finished product so special was, certainly, the food. The way it bubbled and sizzled—this was the first time that 3D animation had managed to really make you feel a way. Stylistically, it had more in common with Hayao Miyazaki than Finding Nemo. And culturally, it tapped into a booming global trend that suddenly worshipped cooking in all its forms: Iron Chef, Masterchef, Kitchen Nightmares and Jamie Oliver were at the edge of the zeitgeist.
Ratatouille's key plot lines were as satiating as its best cooking montages: the loveable Remy and his romantic, rose-tinted Parisian dream, set against a glowing Eiffel Tower and a soundtrack of sentimental accordions; the good-hearted and hapless Linguini, whose only goal in life is not to disappoint people; and Janine Garofalo's sparkling Colette, who teaches Linguini (or more accurately, the Remy hiding in his chef's hat) how to get by in Gusteau's kitchen, and whose only demand is that he doesn't get in the way of her ambition.
In its best moments, though, Ratatouille was an homage to friendship and possibility. Real Wholesome Stuff.
Ratatouille opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews. In France, it was the fourth biggest opening the country's film industry had ever seen—behind only Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar, Men in Black and Spiderman. Likely because the French wanted to see how badly the Americans would butcher their culture. But chefs, critics, and audiences alike spoke of how it enamoured them: writer Thomas Sotinel at the often surly newspaper Le Monde called it "One of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema."
Back in America, Empire gently reminded audiences that "That feeling you have as you leave the cinema — that buzzing in the fingers and lightness in the heart — is called joy." Roger Ebert declared it "clearly one of the best of the year's films." The film earned five Oscar nominations—winning Best Animated Film—breaking all previous records for animated films. More than any accolade, though, the film's warmth is the thing that still stands most intact.
It's a bit like A.O. Scott at The New York Times said: "And what, faced with such a ratatouille, is a critic supposed to say? Sometimes the best response is the simplest. Sometimes 'thank you' is enough." And now, 10 years later, "thank you" may still be the most apt thing we can say to a film like Ratatouille…