By far, the most beautifully animated film ever created just so happens to also be the most entertaining. With stunning art direction that rivals the best of live action and animation that would make legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl weep with pride, Ratatouille is the closest thing to perfection we may ever see.
So why then does the film seem so overly long?
Because of my profession as a character animator I’ve seen more animated films than a person really should. Of all the countless frames I’ve witnessed I have never seen anything as stunningly beautiful as Ratatouille. And while I’ll point out a major story flaw below, please understand that I have the utmost respect and admiration for the artistry on display in this film.
Disney’s Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, for which this film easily surpasses as greatest animated film of all time, also had issues with their stories. Story is not the be-all end-all of filmmaking, especially when it comes to character animation. Story may be king, but all is forgiven when you are treated to a visual display unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
There were moments in Ratatouille when I became so involved that I forgot I was watching an animated film. Halfway into the film, there is this chase scene through the streets of Paris that is so believably “real” that it transcends the artform. It becomes something neither animated nor live-action. Director Brad Bird, and all the artists involved in the production of this film, have truly created something new - an aspiration that the film so earnestly touches upon.
Without a doubt, this something new will become the touchstone for all future cinema.
So what’s this major flaw with the story?
The biggest complaint I’ve heard around town is that Ratatouille seemed too long. Most have pointed to the beginning of the story as the obvious problem area. “It took forever to get started,” they’ll say or “The first act is too long.” I’m not sure if I agree with that because I don’t know how else you would’ve set up the whole premise of a rat with this great talent for cooking. No, I believe the real problem exists where the first story stops and the second story begins.
The Story Limit is one of the more important concepts in the Dramatica theory of story. While it is the easiest to understand, for some reason it is also the most easily overlooked. The basic premise is this: stories are an argument and an argument needs a limit in order for it to have meaning. Now this, of course, presumes that you agree with the contention that stories are an argument; that they seek to provide some kind of meaning. In the case of Ratatouille that argument comes in the form of Gusteau’s belief that “Anyone Can Cook.” This is what the film is trying to say; what it is trying to argue to you, the audience.
But an argument needs a limit. For without it, an argument simply becomes a long-winded series of talking points from various points of view. With no end in sight, the audience has no idea how to appreciate each point that is made. When will they end? Why does this one happen before that one? Are there more points to be made or are we getting closer to the end? These are questions an audience asks as it is watching a film. You need to have a limit set so that an audience understands how to appreciate what is being shown to them.1
The Story Limit comes in two flavors - a Timelock or an Optionlock. The first is easiest to understand:2 there is a set amount of time that, once expended, will bring about the climax of a story. This often comes in the form of a deadline, like 24 or 48 Hours. Once that time is up, the story is up.
The second is an Optionlock and is a bit more difficult to explain. In stories with this kind of limit, the climax is brought about once a set amount of options have passed. These can be thought of as passageways through a maze or a set amount of suspects (like Ten Little Indians). One by one these options disappear until finally the characters are out of options; the climax has to occur.
Again, the purpose of setting the limit in a story is so that the audience knows when the story will end. Without it, they become unsettled and restless. But perhaps more important than setting a limit, is making sure you honor it.
Ratatouille begins with a Timelock. The story centers on the world famous Gusteau’s restaurant located in the heart of Paris. Gusteau, now deceased, established in his will that 2 years after his passing, if no rightful heir could be found, the restaurant would be passed on to the Head Chef - in this case, Skinner (brilliantly voiced by Ian Holm). The 2 year deadline is the Timelock; once that deadline has passed the restaurant will fall into Skinner’s hands. Several times throughout the first half of the film we are reminded of this Story Limit (what most refer to as “the ticking clock”). This constant reminder builds up an expectation in us: once that limit has been reached, the story has to end.
But before that limit can be reached, Remy discovers Skinner’s nefarious plans and Linguini’s rightful place as Gusteau’s heir.3 He steals Skinners documents and brings them to Linguini. Linguini acquires Gusteau’s, thus ending the Objective Story in Success.
The story has ended, but only by violating the Story’s Limit — a crime that has a very unfortunate side effect. When certain strictures are set in place, an expectation is created within an audience member; when they are tossed aside, so too is the audience’s trust in an author. As mentioned before this loss of a trust often reveals itself as a restlessness and a disengagement from the reception of a story. And there is no more obvious place to witness this than in the reactions of a small child.
For some reason, children instinctively know when a story is finished, regardless of whether or not they actually understand the words that are being said. If you have young children you know that no matter what it is they are watching, a television show or an animated feature, when that climax occurs they get up and start moving around. Rarely, if ever, do they sit and wait around for the denouement. And this is precisely what my children did when the first story of Ratatouille ended.
Linguini “won” the restaurant and my 2 year olds were down on the ground, ready to leave…but the film wasn’t over. Even my 4 year old daughter became rather fidgety, asking for water and for more food. This doesn’t happen with Cars, or Finding Nemo, or Iron Giant, or Toy Story or The Incredibles; all those films have complete stories that honor their Story Limit.
Thankfully Ratatouille doesn’t waste too much time in setting up the second story - that of impressing the delightfully sardonic food critic, Anton Ego (another brilliant performance by Peter O’ Toole). There is a bit of an overlap between the two stories,4 but not enough to where you don’t feel a real lull in the middle of the film. Again, the stunning nature of the visuals are such that much can be forgiven, but this premature ending is cause for some concern. When exactly will this new story end?
Once you realize the trappings of the second story, you begin to understand that now there is an Optionlock in place: There are only a set amount of people who are willing to work with a rat in the kitchen before Remy and Linguini will have to do it all by themselves. The chefs of Gusteau’s leave in disgust and Remy is left with only one last option: that of having his father and the colony of rats help him prepare the meal for Ego.
Because there isn’t much time left, this story is brought to an unusually quick but emotionally fulfilling end (more on this later). Remi’s Main Character Throughline is nicely resolved, as are the throughlines of most all the other characters. Strangely enough, the Antagonist of the first story (Skinner) is not sufficiently brought to an end, and as such, we’re kind of left wondering what happenned to him.
But this could’ve easily been repaired.
Solving this kind of story problem is easy: simply end the second story before you end the first. This is how Finding Nemo was able to successfully weave two separate stories together. The “Finding Nemo” main story was the first; the Nemo and Gill “Stuck in an Aquarium” story was the second. The second story was resolved before the first one; Nemo and the other fish escape from the aquarium and then Marlin finds his son. By taking this approach, the audience is not left wondering what story will come next; they still expect the ending of the first as they wait for the completion of the second.
Ratatouille could’ve easily taken this approach. They could’ve allowed the “Pleasing the Food Critic” story to play out and successfully end first. Then they could’ve resolved the “Passing on of Ownership of Gusteau’s.” The exact particulars of this switch would have to be fine tuned, but here’s one coarse attempt at it.
When Ego requests an audience with the chef, Skinner could reappear victorious stating that it doesn’t matter who served up the dish - time has run out; the restaurant and the name Gusteau are now his. Skinner could perhaps reveal the presence of rats in the kitchen resulting in Collete and Linguini’s banishment from the kitchen. This would all occur shortly after the Second Act turns into the Third. Remy could then reveal what he knows about Linguini’s true heritage and the race would be on to regain Linguini’s place as rightful owner of Gusteau’s.
Again, the suggestion above is rather raw and untested, but the purpose behind it is clear: Hold the audience’s attention throughout both stories. By finishing the second story before the first, an author maintains the dramatic tension necessary to engage an audience. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, by doing this an author maintains the audience’s trust. By honoring the limit of an argument, an author fulfills the original promise made to the audience: that of providing them with meaning.
Ratatouille unfortunately did not take this approach and thus feels like two consecutive stories mashed into one. As it turns out, there might be a good reason for this.
The first director on Ratatouille was Jan Pinkava. For whatever reason, Pinkava was replaced with the insanely talented Brad Bird.5 From what I’ve been able to gather, only two lines of dialogue exist from the original Pinkava version. With an extremely short production schedule, Bird still was able to create one of the most beautifully animated films of all time. That being said it still suffers from a major hiccup in the structure of the story. How much of this comes as a result of one director taking over for the other is not entirely known but for now, will be accepted as one of the primary catalysts.
There is something quite ridiculous about criticizing a film that criticizes critics. Throughout writing my critique above I kept referring back to Ego’s review of the new Gusteau’s and of his less than stellar opinion of critics (which, in my estimation, is simply Brad Bird’s opinion of critics). Why waste time criticizing something when you could be spending it creating something entirely new?
Ego has a point, and one that is not entirely lost on me. Still, I did have problems with the structure of the story; enough that it took me out of the film. This doesn’t happen on films without significant story problems. I was enraptured with The Incredibles as much as I was with The Shawshank Redemption. Those films had complete stories that honored all that they had set up.
It will be interesting then to see if Ratatouille holds up on further viewings (which will come by the truckloads once the DVD arrives in my house).6 Right now, I’m not so sure. During the film I was even prepared to predict that the answer would be no; that my problems with the story would simply relegate me to burning only my most favorite scenes onto my Greatest Animated Scenes DVD.
But then Ego took that first bite of Remy’s dish.
The sequence that followed was so wonderfully heart-warming, so tender and so emotionally fulfilling that I quickly forgot all about story structure and story theory. Structure is one thing; to feel your heart overflow with elation at a beautifully touching sequence is quite another. I will never forget that feeling I had watching this “new” artform and will be forever indebted to those who created such a remarkable experience.
But I do believe that the problems in the story are still worth looking at. After all, this is a site dedicated to the study of story structure — not film appreciation — and is therefore reason enough for why I felt compelled to criticize. For if this site was instead dedicated to the latter, you’d find nothing but praise and large 1920×1080 High Definition JPEGs adorning every page.
In other words, I loved it.
Additional commentary and discussion regarding this article can be found in our post Ratatouille Story Analysis Revisited
Especially amongst male audience members—Timelocks are their favorite! ↩︎
The fact that Remy discovers this as a result of his deciding to steal from the kitchen is also confusing thematically. Is it a good thing then that he has attempting to steal? Thematically, Remy is kind of all over the place; besides his issues of stealing he is also trying to come terms with whether or not a rat really can cook, or if a rat should even be allowed to. These different themes of exploration also contribute to the feeling of an overly long film. But when it comes to this specific issue of stealing, not knowing exactly how we are to measure his actions becomes a bit problematic in our appreciation of the story ↩︎
The introduction of Ego is sort of clunkily forced into the middle of the first story. We’re introduced to this brilliant character (who’s silhouette and office resemble all too closely that of a coffin!) but then are summarily deprived of him for far too long ↩︎
I believe Brad was 14 or 16 when he began working with the aforementioned legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl—an animator who most regard as the greatest ever. ↩︎
Refer the previously mentioned “house full of kids!” ↩︎