Ratatouille is a fantasy, but a fantasy so close to reality that the fantastic bits almost go unnoticed. The moments where the film asks us to suspend our disbelief are so few and so minor that we forget the film is about a talking rat who can cook. Remy’s unbelievable intelligence is what creates the conflict for the whole story.
Yes, the movie is an allegory for those shunned due to their background or class and the pressures of enjoing new success while staying true to one’s roots. I wouldn’t deny these layers of meaning anymore than I would deny Linguini’s physical humor or the frustrating reasons behind Colette’s toughness. The well developed story and characters of Ratatouille are what make it so easy to forget that the plot never explains how it is that Remy and his clan of rats can understand humans. There is no Secret of NIHM moment where we realize they’ve been tested on and exposed to chemicals. All we know is Remy watches and understands TV, as do his nest mates, and that once Linguini gets over the shock of Remy communicating with him, he accepts all other developments accordingly.
So Ratatouille is not just about “overcoming one’s background and the prejudice of others.” The use of animals to disguise the race/class/ethnicity tropes normally trotted out for this kind of story telling force Ratatouille into strange territory. Almost accidentally the film sets itself up to defend the rights of uplifted animals. One of the most intense moments of the film comes when Remy’s father, Django, explains How Things Are and encourages Remy to accept the status quo. To drive home his point, Django shows Remy the display window of an exterminator. Remy’s response is brilliant:
Django: Take a good, long look, Rémy. This what happens when a rat gets a little too comfortable around humans. The world we live in belongs to the enemy. We must live carefully. We look out for our own kind, Rémy. When all is said and done, we’re all we’ve got. [starts to walk away]
Django: [stops] What?
Rémy: No. Dad, I don’t believe it. You’re telling me that the future is, can only be, more of this?
Django: This is the way things are. You can’t change nature.
Rémy: Change is nature, Dad. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide. [he walks away]
Django: Where are you going?
Rémy: With luck, forward.
These lines are generic enough that they appeal to all calls for rights and social acceptance and the bravery of being different. But the key line, “change is nature” is something special. That simple assertion is still one of the most difficult concepts about evolution that one can grasp. Species, biospheres, cultures, companies, internet memes, and fashion are always changing and it is by changing we know they are still relevant, still alive. The reverse is also true: living things will and should change into new, different, and perhaps unsettling things. Django is seen as less right than Remy not because he miscalculates how humans treat rats or because he doesn’t understand that Remy has a friend, but because he does not understand that communicating with humans changes the whole framework of the debate.
Normal, unintelligent, wild rats are always going to be killed by humans because the two species are at an impasse. Remy and his clan, however, demonstrate transrodent-like ability, being super-smart for their (or any non-human) species and capable of interacting on the same intellectual level as humans. Unlike racism and classism, it is not prejudiced to presume a non-human cannot cook or use language to the same degree as humans, as there is no evidence even close to proving otherwise. Therefore, what Linguini (and eventually Colette and Ego) do is not overcome their prejudice but accept the extraordinary claim of Remy’s intelligence by his extraordinary proof: repeatedly cooking world-class meals that impresses the toughest critics in Paris.
The argument Ratatouille seems to be making in terms of animal uplift is that any one test of intelligence is ultimately irrelevant. Remy is not subjected to an IQ test or an MRI or anything else. His cooking, a dynamic, creative, complex activity that is simultaneously an art and a science, makes all his arguments for him. Given that cooking is a uniquely, perhaps essential, human behavior, that Brad Bird would make this the proof of Remy’s personhood is quite fitting.
The toughest critic, Anton Ego, is so rocked by the revelation of Remy’s ability that he is forced to look inward, to criticize himself in order to allow this new idea of a cooking, and therefore sentient, rat:
Risking a “defense of the new” is, indeed, the most powerful and meaningful thing a critic can do. To do so requires overcoming one’s “repugnance” of the new, for whatever reason it manifests, and braving into uncomfortable and dangerous territory. All three humans that help Remy take huge risks, and, as we see at the end of the film, are justly rewarded with a successful restaurant of their own. To risk something for an idea is to take ownership in the value of that idea, to internalize and personalize that risk.
Ratatouille makes an interesting point about the risks involved. Not only is it morally right for those who believe in Remy’s abilities to support him openly, but it is also rewarded financially. Though Ego loses his job and Gaston’s is closed, the new restaurant, La Ratatouille, is co-owned (I presume) by Linguine, Colette, and Ego, and, with Remy and Colette’s cooking, bound to be extremely profitable. While government regulations (vermin infestation) and social norms (repugnance of rats) reinforce the urge to discredit Remy, capitalism opens a door for his and his supporters’ success.
Ratatouille’s story of overcoming the limits of one’s background and the prejudices against it is an argument for the possibility of animal uplift and presents a potential new criterion, cooking, for determining personhood. C’est magnifique.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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