How Ratatouille Translated Taste Onto the Big Screen
A comedy with great taste.
Ratatouille at 15
From the wildly inventive mind of Brad Bird, Ratatouille burst onto cinema screens with a joyous energy characteristic of the early Pixar classics. We follow Remy (Patton Oswald), a rat who has keen senses of smell and taste, whose talents go underappreciated by his garbage-munching family. After being washed away from home and hearth, he finds himself in the vicinity of Gusteau’s restaurant in Paris. He begins his journey to become a chef alongside the new garbage boy, Alfredo Linguini.
While the plot and characterization are delightful and occasionally absurd, Ratatouille also deserves acclaim for its filmic representation of taste. Bird had to translate the sense into a purely audio-visual medium, while still making the film palatable to young viewers.
The most obvious technique is the animation of the food sequences themselves. Cooking is dynamic: the food glistens on the plate, soup bubbles and steams, and each ingredient is rendered in detail. Gourmet chefs from both France and the U.S. were consulted to ensure that the food looked delicious on screen, and the animators certainly delivered on this promise. As Studio Ghibli has also shown, animation is a medium that can present perfect and tantalizing versions of dishes, appealing to our taste through our vision.
Yet, the act of tasting itself is a harder task to represent on screen. Aside from showing a character eating, or describing the food, filmmakers cannot evoke a specific taste in audiences. Yet, the animators came up with a brilliant idea to literally translate taste.
The idea stems from synaesthesia – a phenomenon where one sense can mingle with, and stimulate, another. For example, a person prone to synaesthesia might associate certain sounds with different colours or sensations.
Remy, our ravenous rodent, seems to have an acute version of this synaesthesia in his tasting scenes. Occasionally, when he concentrates on his taste, the animators darken the background behind him, and dancing colours appear for each ingredient, accompanied by a corresponding instrument. As he samples foods together, the colours and instruments mix and intertwines as he literally orchestrates his taste.
A surprisingly creative attempt to create an audial-visual version of taste, this method encourages the audience to focus on the different ingredients separately, and then together, joining the eating character on his journey of combining flavours. When first watching the film as a young child, I remember afterwards re-enacting the scene, attempting to isolate and then mingle flavours (with varying degrees of success). Even Remy’s garbage-eating brother attempts the same method, albeit with his more muted colours and instruments. It’s a skill to be trained, after all, but the film’s philosophy still rings true: anyone can cook. Anyone has taste.
The climactic tasting of Remy’s dish (Ratatouille) also brings in another element of taste: sense memory. In an evocative representation of the emotional impact of food, we see the usually stone-faced critic, Ego, transported back in time to his mother’s cooking after tasting the meal.
The best Michelin Star inspectors and chefs are often expected to have incredible sense memory, being able to compare the tastes of meals between restaurants over long periods of time. The dish’s ability to evoke such a strong flashback in the critic shows both his own incredible sensory memory, as well as the emotional power of the dish. Remy has managed to move someone with his food, and we, the audience, are moved by watching.
Attempts to represent taste on screen are few and far between. Yet, when done with enough creative flair, these attempts can change the way we react to food on the screen. Perhaps, one day, it will be good enough to eat.