Ratatouille is a masterpiece of a film. It’s Pixar’s most adult film, the perfect balance of humor and emotion, with a great message about staying true to yourself no matter what society may think of you. It was one of the first films I ever reviewed on my blog (almost nine years ago, and it’s embarrassing to read), and one I’ve written about more than once. The moment when Anton Ego tastes Remy’s ratatouille and is transported back to his youth is one of my all-time favorite film moments, and I remember watching the film for the first time and sobbing from that moment through the end of the credits until the ushers came in to clean up the theater. But one of the most crucial, and often overlooked, aspects of the film is France itself, specifically the city of Paris, which beyond being just the setting for the story is almost a character on its own.Ratatouille is practically a love letter to Paris.
The Paris presented in Ratatouille is visually stunning, capturing both stunning views of the city and landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the street-level, everyday Paris, a bustling metropolis. But the Paris in the film was never intended to be 100% faithful to the real thing. There’s a certain timelessness to the film, created by combining the classic and the modern, much like Paris itself. Specifically, the film eschews things like computers and cell phones, and the vehicles on the streets range show a wide range of ages. Compare, for instance, Lalo’s classic Vespa scooter and Colette’s more recent motorcycle. This gives the Paris of the film a bit of a fantasy feeling, with one sequence feeling like it might be at home in the 1950s while others feeling like they belong in the 21st century. For those who have visited Paris, this will feel extremely familiar, as this juxtaposition of the old and the new is very much a part of the city’s atmosphere. Of course, as all great films do,Ratatouille uses these visuals to reinforce the themes of the film, about honoring tradition while not being afraid of the new.
Ratatouille’s Paris is still very much a tourist’s impression of the city, however. It’s heavy on beauty and the stereotypical visuals of Paris one might expect from a postcard or a quick visit, and light on what one might imagine are the realities of Paris life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing per se, but it does make the film’s Paris feel a bit exaggerated at times. In addition, this American-made film plays up some common outsider preconceptions about France and the French people. Some of these are undoubtedly true, such as Paris’s reputation as a paradise for food lovers, where you can find the best of the best in cuisine. On the other hand, who can forget Colette’s line, “We hate to be rude, but we’re French!” The prejudice against the French for their perceived rudeness is a pretty easy joke, but on my few trips to France I’ve never encountered any. There’s more than a little snobbishness to some of the characters as well, although the character who is the biggest snob is Ego, who is British, and the film goes out of its way to subvert that reputation among foodies and the French throughout the story. Some of the French stereotypes in the film are hilarious, however. My favorite is the moment when Remy, on first climbing out of the sewer in Paris, runs past an apartment where a man and a woman are arguing with a gun. It goes off, putting a bullet hole in the ceiling beside Remy, but when he goes back to them he finds the couple sharing a passionate kiss. It’s a moment that feels at home in an American movie from the 40s based in Paris, a classic trope that has always felt like an embodiment of French romance, passionate and unpredictable. (It’s also mirrored later in the film as Colette debates whether to mace Linguini as he kisses her.)
I’d be very curious how French people view Ratatouille. The film goes out of its way to make Paris seem amazing while not giving the most realistic view of the city, it has ties to French culture while perpetuating some classic American stereotypes of France. But even more than that, Ratatouille is a film that takes place in Paris, is filled with French characters, yet it has not one French actor among the major roles. Most of the cast are American (Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Dennehy, Brad Garrett, etc), with Peter O’Toole and Ian Holm representing the UK. Yet almost all of these outsiders are voicing French characters, with a wide variety of accents. Some like Garofalo, Garrett, and Holm all manage acceptable French impersonations, while others don’t even bother to try. I can understand the rats not having French accents, but why is Linguini for some reason an American? He agrees with Colette when she says “we’re French” but his accent would disagree. (And the lest said about John Ratzenberger’s accent, the better. Not that it matters, because by Pixar law he’s required to have a part.) As much as I enjoy the voice performances of the cast, couldn’t English-speaking French actors have filled in the cast, particularly roles like the chef voiced by Will Arnett? Why not cast someone like Jean Reno? (Yes, I know he was neither born in France nor is of French descent, but he’s still a French citizen and has a recognizable voice.) In fact, the only French voice we hear at all in the film is Camille, who sings the theme song “Le Festin”.
Speaking of “Le Festin”, if I had to point to one aspect of the film that feels the most French, and really drives the Parisian feel of the movie, it’s the score. Michael Giacchino is a Pixar mainstay, having scored five of their films, but his Ratatouillescore is in a class of its own. In addition to being an excellent basic animated comedy score, it also does most of the legwork in establishing both the film’s Paris setting and the film’s French vibe. At times jazzy and urban, at others classical and subtle, it captures in many ways the essence of France, particularly for outsiders. It may play into stereotypes too, but it’s so earnest and charming that it’s hard to describe that as a fault. The music evokes an image of sipping wine outside a café or taking a stroll along the Seine at night. But the highlight of the score still has to be “Le Festin”, sung so beautifully by Camille and so reminiscent of the legendary Édith Piaf. It recalls to mind and heart an idealized Paris, rich and diverse yet classic and refined, with just the right amount of romance and sexiness thrown in.
The Paris of Ratatouille isn’t a place you can really visit. There’s no traffic, no tourists, and even the rats are pretty clean. But viewed as a love letter to the city, Ratatouille practically worships Paris. Never has the city looked more beautiful and inviting, bustling with life yet welcoming despite the familiar tropes about the French. The film makes you want to just climb through the screen and go for a stroll, perhaps grabbing a baguette with perfect crust and a bottle of wine while you sit and watch the people go by. The film makes Paris more than the food capital of the world, it makes it seem like a dream. But this animated dream of Paris is not one simply of polished perfection, but a rich, vibrant city of life, love, and light. It’s the sort of city in which you could see yourself falling in love, as though nothing could be more natural. And while I’m sure Parisians would say that the real Paris is vastly more different and complex, there’s no denying that the city really does have a bit of magic to it. And after all, as Ratatouille says, “What better place to dream than in Paris?”