In Defense of the Critic: Ratatouille at 10
Brad Bird’s Ratatouille ends with the words of the spindly, terrifying food critic Anton Ego. “In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
In many ways, it is this summation that forms the core message of Ratatouille. This is a film about the primacy and purity of passion. It’s not necessarily Remy’s talent that drives Gusteau’s back from the brink of mediocrity. We see Remy learn technique from Colette; how to streamline his passion and focus it into efficient form. Instead, what keeps Gusteau’s open is Remy’s willingness to experiment in the face of droves of chefs – chefs whom he admires greatly – who repeat the same rote recipes night after night. It works, but it’s boring. And, more importantly, it goes directly against Gusteau’s mantra: “Anyone can cook.” If anyone can cook, why only follow the strict prescriptions of one cook?
Where Bird’s exploration of passion really shines, though, is in their exaggerated exploration of the critic Anton Ego. A man whose very name evokes contempt and self-importance, Ego is built up to be a savage, heartless critic whose jagged edges and precise, mechanical animation creates the image of exactitude. He is perpetually lit from his underside and he swoops across rooms like a specter of (restaurant) death. He is, in many ways, the most tired of stereotypes about critics. The image of the soulless robotic destroyers of fun that have, in recent years, been increasingly resurrected as boogeymen to convince consumers that critics somehow manipulate their attitudes and feelings about art. Thankfully, Bird’s examination is hardly so shallow. In the climax of the film, Remy strips down all of the fluff and cooks a meal so simple it is described as “peasant food,” the eponymous ratatouille. Essentially finely sliced vegetables layered with some spices; the dish is seen as a gamble. It is presumed that to impress, art must be grandiose.
Instead, Brad Bird reminds us that most of us fell in love with some form of art at a young age. Maybe we weren’t watching Persona when we fell in love with film, but that is okay. There was something in that initial form of art that captured our imagination, our minds, and our hearts. And, that was enough. This core passion, Bird suggests, is not just what should hook us to an art form, but it should be what continues to drive us to seek out new creativity within that form. Critics, Bird suggests, are not soulless leeches, but rather passionate individuals who are so dedicated to some form that they devote their lives to studying it. They may grow hardened from the sheer breadth of their exposure, but that core nugget of passion is what drives them to dedicate their entire being to a form. Ideally, they push the form forward by raising new voices on the platform they possess. They help generate innovation by highlighting passion and invention. Ego, though he initially embodies all that we bemoan about criticism – harshness, haughtiness, and a general sense of disdain, reminds us why criticism should be such a valued art form. It is a privileged job, but one that comes with a great many responsibilities. It requires an understanding of the form, how it works, what makes it tick, why it sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. But, ultimately, what makes criticism valuable is the passion of the critic. She or he has decided to dedicate their life to a form. The idea that art can change someone’s life so irrevocably that they are willing to spend the remainder of it on that form is a powerful one. It’s an idea that gets lost in the harshness of some pieces and the constant desire for art to be better than it currently is. It is the drive for innovation and fear of stagnation that pushes the critic to in turn push the artist who, cyclically (and ideally), will, in turn, push the critic.
Ratatouille reminds us that passion supersedes everything. Passion drives innovation and innovation drives passion. Neither limb of the broader corpus of art can exist without the other. Or as Anton Ego puts it, “But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably 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. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”