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11 minutes

The Delectable and Exquisite Themes of Ratatouille

When it comes to the theme of a story, most fall back on the Controlling Idea principle, that is, the one overriding thematic concept that flows through an entire piece of narrative fiction. Saddled with this bit of knowledge, most first-time writers ponder incessantly over their one perfect idea, spending a year or two trying to force every scene under its repressive umbrella.

Their work becomes stifled, the author constricted by such a narrow appreciation of the measuring stick that is them. Any attempt by the writer’s instinct to perk its timid, yet always prescient, voice up over the cubicle walls of their mind is met with swift and violent action. The suggestion that there might be something more only results in a puff of red mist, another victim of the sniper rifle held by reductive paradigm gurus.

How comforting is it then to find out that there are actually four entirely different themes at work within a complete story.

Four Different Themes? Are You Kidding Me?!

Not at all. The thing is, even though there are multiple themes, they are actually tied together in a very meaningful way. They aren’t as separate as one might think.

For instance, if you are exploring the issues that grow from people working for their own good (as in Unforgiven), it only makes sense that you should also explore the dedication the two principal characters in the story have towards acheiving their goal and maybe even the dedication they have towards one another (as is so expertly done with William Munny and Ned in the same film). One theme plays off of the other.

What about Neo’s issue of whether or not he is open to new things like bending spoons or stopping bullets in mid-air in The Matrix? Doesn’t it follow that Morpheus, the primary influence on Mr. Andersen’s character, should somehow be providing an alternative perspective by how diligently the bald man works to bring his search for the One to an end? The impact of the second theme works in exquisite concert with the first.

The selfishness explored in Unforgiven is complemented by the dedication the two former killers have for each other. Neo’s openness is juxtaposed by Morpheus and his drive to bring things to an end. In both cases, the individual storylines are looking at the same problem (and we all know that stories are really about solving problems, right?), only they’re coming at them from two different perspectives. Placing them together in the same narrative work helps create a meaningful experience in the minds of the audience.

Brad Bird understood this when he set out to fix Ratatouille for Pixar back in the mid-aughts.

The Rat, The Boy, Their Friendship and The Restaurant

Before diving into an exploration of the thematic issues at work in this beautiful film, it becomes necessary to take a step back. As with all Pixar films, Ratatouille creates story magic by crafting a complete story comprising of four interconnected throughlines.

The first, and most recognizable throughline, is that of Remy. As Main Character, Remy is a master chef trapped in the body of a rodent. As the only vermint who walks on two feet, Remy sets himself apart from the others, building a reputation for himself by simply being different from the rest of his kind. It causes problems for him and thus, by definition, becomes his own personal throughline. In other words, his is the Main Character Throughline.

The second throughline, perhaps not as obvious yet no less important, is that of Liguini. As the big-nosed nephew of famed chef Gusteau, Linguini arrives on scene ready to conquer the world. However, with no idenitfiable talent to speak of he is relegated to the position of garbage-boy. This quick assesment of his ability is a huge problem for him and calls to mind the same kind of issues that Remy himself faces, albeit from a less personal point-of-view. We never really step into Linguini’s shoes and thus, he provides the Impact Character Throughline.

Both boy and rat develop a relationship, thus cementing the third throughline, the Relationship Story Throughline. The relationship between the Main and Impact Character becomes the “heart” of every story, apparent in scenes similar to the one where Linguini lets Remy go, only to have him quickly return. While both of these characters are very much alike, they still approach things from two different ways. Learning how to work together covertly, with Remy under hat, becomes the central concern of their developing friendship.

Lastly, there is the actual story of Ratatouille itself, the story of a rat who wants to prove once and for all that “Anyone Can Cook.” Here, one can find conflict with the current propreitor of Gusteau’s, vertically-challenged Skinner, and eventually with the vampirical master critic, Anton Ego. Remy and Liguini’s crafty ruse plays out within this Overall Story Throughline, the throughline that involves all the characters within a logistical argument where eventually one side wins and the other loses.

Four throughlines, four different perspectives on the same problem, one complete story. But what is most compelling about all of these is how wonderfully sophisticated the themes are within each.

Drawn to Beauty

The thematic issues at play within Remy’s throughline is that of being drawn toward something. Personally, he is very intrigued, very inspired by the smells and the artistry that comes with the creation of a perfect meal. While he can’t explain it, it is something that he is deeply attracted to, yet something he could never realistically have. It is the problem of many artists trapped in dire or repressive situations, and one any audience member can easily relate to.

First Impressions Are a Bitch

Juxtaposing this attraction towards beauty is the initial assesment that others have of Linguini. Just as Remy is drawn toward something, Linguini is prevented from moving forward in life because of the first impressions others have of him. People look at Liguini and they know right off the bat what he is good for. Remy’s felt the same, yet seeing it played out in another person has an effect on him and challenges the poor little rat to question whether or not his dreams are really worth the effort.

Step by Step

How can two learn to work together when they come from completely different worlds? One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. Whatever cliched phrase works to convey the importance of progressing forward is sufficient enough to explain the issues at work between them. Linguini often wants to jump right in whereas Remy would rather practice all night, taking it from the top if they have to. This is how two learn to work together when they don’t even know if they can, or if they are even allowed to.

Anyone Can Cook

Easily the most recognizable theme of the film, the idea that permission is not something to be granted dictates the issues faced by everyone. Whereas the emotional argument carried out between the Remy and Linguini involves the steps they have to take to move forward, the bigger issue at work is whether or not anyone should be allowed to move forward at all. Gusteau put forth the idea that Anyone Can Cook, but really, can a rat? This is the central dramatic question of the piece, the one that drives the whole story forward and helps to frame the unexpected ending with greater meaning.

Writing With Four Themes

Did Brad Bird know all of this when he was creating this film? Most likely not. Great filmmakers are rarely aware of the processes and underlying structure that infuses their work with great meaning. They just know it works. And Ratatouille really works.

The issue of whether or not anyone can cook is played out against the steps two characters must take in order to learn how to work well together, almost showing how each grants the other permission to step forward. The latter is a more emotional version of the former played out against the quiet landscape of two simple people. Likewise, you have the unfortunate first impressions of Linguini being explored within Remy as well. Everyone looks at a rat and knows instantly what they think of him. Remy, of course, rebukes such appraisals, knowing full well that he can’t resist something he is drawn too, moving towards the light that pulls him forward regardless of who gives him permission. And in that way, the four themes circle back into one another.

Complete stories should seek to provide an audience with more than simply one controlling idea. There can, of course, be one idea that has more emphasis than the others but as can be seen with Ratatouille this more prominient idea is supported strongly by the other three. Issues do not happen in a vaccuum, they are meaningless when presented so. Progress cannot be made without the other inequity pushing against it. The reason you have the other throughlines is to grant meaning to the others. Combine them all together and you have one sophisitcated machine for gifiting greater meaning to an audience.

Can there be anything more delicious?

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The thematic issues in Ratatouille are so expertly crafted that it almost seems like Dramatica had a hand in it. I’m sure it didn’t, but it is comforting to see such a unique storyform played out with such detail (and great animation to boot!).

Remy’s Issue of Attraction. Linguini’s Issue of Appraisal. Their relationship’s issue of Prerequisites. And, of course, the Overall Story Issue of Permission. As described above, each Issue works together, harmonizing a meaning that leaves one feeling satisfied and fulfilled.

Even better is how each Thematic Quad is fully explored. Remy’s Issues of Work vs. Attempt (doing what everyone/his dad wants him to do vs. what he’d like to do) and the aforementioned Issue of Attraction vs. Repulsion (who isn’t repulsed by a rat?). The Investigation of Linguini vs. the Doubt everyone has about his talents, mixed in with the Appraisal and Reappraisal that can be seen in Collete’s estimation of him. As covered previously, their relationship explores the different steps they have to go through in order to become a proficient chef system (Prerequisites) vs. the Preconditions that Linguini imposes on their relationship with regards to his crush on Collete. And finally, Permission vs. Deficiency (Gusteau’s lack of stars) played against the Need vs. Expediency argument seen in Remy’s relationship with his family and Skinner’s race to turn Gusteau’s into McDonald’s.

It is unusual to find a film that covers the thematic issues of a storyform so well, especially an American film. Especially an animated American film. Usually there is more attention paid to the Concerns at the expense of Theme. Ratatouille is a welcome relief.

The thematic issues in Ratatouille are so expertly crafted that it almost seems like Dramatica had a hand in it. I’m sure it didn’t, but it is comforting to see such a unique storyform played out with such detail (and great animation to boot!).

Remy’s Issue of Attraction. Linguini’s Issue of Appraisal. Their relationship’s issue of Prerequisites. And, of course, the Overall Story Issue of Permission. As described above, each Issue works together, harmonizing a meaning that leaves one feeling satisfied and fulfilled.

Even better is how each Thematic Quad is fully explored. Remy’s Issues of Work vs. Attempt (doing what everyone/his dad wants him to do vs. what he’d like to do) and the aforementioned Issue of Attraction vs. Repulsion (who isn’t repulsed by a rat?). The Investigation of Linguini vs. the Doubt everyone has about his talents, mixed in with the Appraisal and Reappraisal that can be seen in Collete’s estimation of him. As covered previously, their relationship explores the different steps they have to go through in order to become a proficient chef system (Prerequisites) vs. the Preconditions that Linguini imposes on their relationship with regards to his crush on Collete. And finally, Permission vs. Deficiency (Gusteau’s lack of stars) played against the Need vs. Expediency argument seen in Remy’s relationship with his family and Skinner’s race to turn Gusteau’s into McDonald’s.

It is unusual to find a film that covers the thematic issues of a storyform so well, especially an American film. Especially an animated American film. Usually there is more attention paid to the Concerns at the expense of Theme. Ratatouille is a welcome relief.

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