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Of rats and transformation


Last week, I saw Ratatouille (a film about Remy, a rat with a gift for chef-ing who joins forces with a young man to bring back the reputation of a restaurant in Paris) with my four-year-old son and my just-this-week-turned nine-year-old daughter. I went in with pretty high expectations: it has a mind-blowing 96% at Rotton Tomaotes (which compiles mainstream critics), for Pete’s sake.

My take? Well, it was definitely one of the better films I’ve seen in this genre—and, more importantly, my kids really enjoyed it. The animation was fantastic (heh, there were points when the rats were moving in swarms that I had to fight to keep from lifting my feet off the floor) and I found the main characters and story interesting and worthwhile. But there were points (near the end of the first third, beginning of the second third) when I found myself a little impatient for the story to move ahead. I don’t like being jarred or lulled out of a film to the point when I remember I’m sitting in a theater instead of engrossed in an unfolding story.

That aside, I enjoyed the film, particularly one moment near the end that really moved me—and it has to do with 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 (and has more than a little to say to us):

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 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—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 (i.e., embracing gifts, trust, working out relationships, the effect of using gifts on those around us), but this moment was one of the more powerful to me. And, like Anton, chances are I’ll be returning to see Remy (and not just because my kids have added the film to our must-buy list).

(Images: copyrighted by Pixar)

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