Ratatouille:  Hits All The Right Notes

Written by Tony DiGerolamo & Mike L. Murphy

Mike here with another story breakdown!

This is one of my favorite animated films for the simple reason that it’s so unique.  It’s more of an art house film, yet it was produced by Pixar and directed by Brad Bird.  So it’s top notch and very cool.  It was originally meant to be written and directed by a different person but due to story issues (solving the problem of the rat interacting with the humans, Brad Bird stepped in at the last minute to save the day). 

In this article, I’m going to focus on the ‘Big Buy’ component of storytelling.  In each story, you can have 1 logic leap.  One thing that suspends disbelief.  If you include more than 1 then the audience will stop believing you.  A good case in point is the first Spiderman film.  In it we are led to believe that Peter Parker can turn into Spiderman after being bit by a spider AND (unrelated to that) Peter’s best friends Dad gets turned into the Green Goblin (whom also has a space-age flying glider and other marvels of technology).  Even though I enjoyed that movie, the Green Goblin subplot SUCKS.  It annoys me because I simply don’t believe it.  An easy solve for this would have been to have the same accident that turns Peter into Spiderman also create the Green Goblin.

Ratatouille had the same problem.  We’re led to believe that a rat wants to be a chef AND he can manipulate the human hero.  How did this tricky story issue get resolved?  Simple.  The storytellers focused on making 1 big buy, that the rat can ‘control’ the human and make him cook.  Every other story choice is used to support that.  The world is presented as very mundane and realistic.  The only ‘unconventional’ aspect is that Remy wants to cook.  Simple. 

As with the past articles in this series, Tony will be reviewing, and I’ll interject in bold.

Ratatouille, the 2007 animated feature about a rat that can cook, is a pretty solid screenplay.  By Pixar standards, this is your slightly above average story.

Remy the rat is a gourmand and a great cook, but it isn’t until he’s washed into the sewers of Paris and ends up at a restaurant that he gets to test his talents.  Linguini, a young chef wannabe, spills a soup one night and quickly tries to make it again.  Remy, watching from the sidelines knows it’s going to be terrible, so at a key moment, he rushes to the soup and saves it.  Linguini’s boss, Skinner, finds the kid has messed up his soup, but the soup accidentally gets served anyway to rave reviews.  Remy and Linguini combine forces to remake the restaurant’s slightly tarnished image.

This film sets up very well the rules of the world.  Rats are ‘disgusting’ creatures who humans NEVER want in the kitchen.  It’s a great metaphor for prejudice and how hard it is to fight peoples pre-conceived notions of what they want you to be.

In the opening sequence we’re introduced to Remy who dreams of being a cook (he’s been inspired by the cook books of the humans).  He dreams big and no one, humans or his fellow rats, believe that he has any place in the kitchen.

Due to his passions of cooking, he ends up getting all the rats nearly killed when he’s caught in the kitchen.  This once again shows how humans react towards rats and sets the stakes up for the story that follows.  At this point we understand the rules of the world (animals can talk to each other, but not humans) and our heroes dream: to be a chef and conflict: that humans will kill him if he goes near a kitchen.

The inciting incident of the film is split in 2 – first off he gets caught by the old lady while  scampering through her kitchen.  This causes the farm house to be destroyed (which is great because the farm is going to make a nice contrast to the city of Paris.  This makes Remy a ‘fish out of water’.)  When the house is destroyed, all the rats are homeless and have to float into the sewers in order to not get shot.  This is what causes Remy to be separated from his family.  In most movies the inciting incident takes only a few minutes, but in this it lasts an entire sequence.

Now everything up to Act 1 just described isn’t bad, but the weakness occurs when the main character, Remy, cannot talk directly to the second main character, Linguini.  The “realism” of not having the rat also speak English as well as cook, is minimal, which is why they movie probably would’ve been better served with a Seth McFarlane style “animals-can-talk-and-no-one-ever-points-that-out” setting.

The storytellers chose to ground this story in a realistic setting (as realistic you can get in a talking rat movie). 

As stated earlier, each story gets one ‘big buy’.  That simply means that you can have 1 suspension of disbelief that your audience will accept.  The minute you introduce the second suspension of disbelief your audience will stop caring.  This is because they no longer understand the rules of the world.  They’ll begin to suspect that the storytellers will keep breaking new rules so they can cheat the story and have it do what they need.  This is lazy storytelling.  Secondly the filmmakers wanted to create a tone wherein the stakes are high.  The rats can get killed.  Remy can die by following his passions.  A more comic tone would have created a different movie.

The next revelation is that Linguini is actually the son and heir to the restaurant’s previous owner, a legendary chef named Auguste, whom everyone, including Remy, admires.  That bit of luck is a little too convenient and undermines the feeling of randomness.  It just so happens that Linguini, heir to the chef throne, doesn’t know how to cook AND doesn’t know he’s the heir AND got at job in the same restaurant AND found a rat that just happens to be an amazing cook.  When creating your world, you can have some amazing things happen, but too many amazing things and they cease to be amazing.

This is one of those story situations where you need to have certain story beats happen and there’s no way around it.  Going back to the big buy, I don’t feel it’s that the rat can talk.  It’s actually that the rat can manipulate Linguini to cook (he does this via a ‘marionette’ type control).  Because of this (it’s the only way to get the story to function without the humans understanding what Remy says), the rest of the world is played as realistic as possible.

Still, the movie is pretty entertaining.  The final act hinges on a good review from a restaurant critic that once sank the restaurant’s five star rating.  Remy’s ratatouille is a hit, but when Remy’s rat friends are also found in the kitchen, the restaurant is forced to close down.  Later, the characters reemerge at a new restaurant and all is well in the end.  A bit formulaic, but where else are you going to go with a Pixar movie?  Have everyone die?

Formula works for a reason… It’s the storytellers job to add enough twists and turns AND create compelling characters that people identify with and root for.

Although the screenwriters make a decent attempt at trying to surprise with the end, shifting the action to another restaurant doesn’t seem like much of a surprise.  Surprises and revelations drive a story and while Ratatouille is an entertaining ride, it’s through places you’ve seen before.  It doesn’t answer basic questions like why can a rat cook?  Or how did Linguini not know he was the heir?

I feel they answered these 2 questions.  Remy grew up invading the farmhouse kitchen and reading the cook books.  And it’s stated that Linguini’s mother didn’t tell him who his real father was.  Simple enough solution!

The “moral” of the story is based around Remy.  Always pursue your dream and such.  Just because you’re different, blah, blah, blah.  Again, not much of a surprise here.  Remy overcoming his disapproving father is pretty standard.  Good enough to carry the movie, but not detailed enough to wow you.  The world of the rats was just a tad thin and could’ve used some more fleshing out.

I’m sure at one point in the story development process this was explored in great detail and it ultimately got cut becuase this story is about Remy and Linguini.  The rats are one of the sub-plots.  Sub-plots usually need to be kept cut thin otherwise they can easily overshadow the rest of the narrative.

Ratatouille is what I like to call a “par” screenplay.  It’s good.  Any less good and it would be bad.  So if your screenplay isn’t at least as good as Ratatouille, it’s time to do some rewrites.

Seems Tony is giving this a B.  It was an A to me.  I felt this film was a breath of fresh air and found some creative ways to solve some pretty tricky (and odd) story problems.  Remember that this film had to be rescued by Brad Bird because the subject was so tricky.  I believe he solved the problem by making the big buy the fact that Remy could ‘control’ Linguini and then removed everything else that didn’t support that.  That meant creating a very natural world (there is no unrealistic displays of physics or slapstick characters that most animated films have). 

I hope you can start to see why deciding on your stories ‘Big Buy’ is an important decision to make and how it can affect the rest of your story.