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Ratatouille: The Populist Randianism of Brad Bird

July 6th, 2007 · 6 Comments

I got to see the fabulous new Pixar movie Ratatouille earlier this week, and have to report that A.O. Scott’s strikingly effusive review is pretty much justified. But it also makes it even harder to credit director Brad Bird’s denials that he was influenced by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, something many reviewers inferred from his previous hit The Incredibles.

Spoiler Warning – I’m going to talk about thematic stuff mostly, as opposed to big plot points, but if you don’t want to risk having anything given away, you may want to stop here.

Ratatouille is essentially an animated version of The Fountainhead, except that cooking replaces architecture, Ellsworth Toohey eventually has a Grinchian change of heart, and Howard Roark is a rodent. Remy, a culinary savant who happens to be a rat, delivers mini-sermons to his furry brethren on the importance of having high standards rather than being satisfied with garbage, and denounces his clan’s parasitic existence, which he contrasts with the human impulse to create and innovate.

Interestingly, you’re set up to expect something very different. Remy’s hero—and imaginary mentor, who appears periodically as a Yoda-esque glowing phantom to dispense advice—is the celebrated late chef Auguste Gusteau, author of a popular cookbook titled Anyone Can Cook. That philosophy is denounced with delicious contempt by snooty food critic Anton Ego (voiced with dour, sardonic perfection by Peter O’Toole). But this populist-sounding maxim turns out to have two meanings very much opposed to the surface reading: First, that while anyone can follow a recipe, it takes a special creative flair to be a true chef, and second, that these culinary übermenschen can, Horatio Alger style, rise from anywhere, even order rodentia—at least when not being stymied by meddling government health inspectors. Ego, incidentally, ultimately recognizes the parasitic nature of his own vocation and becomes a small business investor.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LP // Jul 7, 2007 at 12:39 am

    Why I read this blog: posts like this. Not that the other commentary on more traditional blog topics isn’t fun, but where else would I go for objectivist deconstruction of pop culture?

  • 2 AC // Jul 8, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Yeah, a similar theme hardly makes it the “animated version of the Fountainhead”. Lovely little pic though!

  • 3 washerdreyer // Jul 9, 2007 at 1:58 am

    I haven’t read Rand or seen Ratatouille, but don’t see anything in this post to suggest that this isn’t just a case of Bird independently discovering some Randian insights.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jul 9, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Well, in the interviews where Bird has been asked about this, he denies being any kind of Randian or having consciously modeled his movies on her ideas. But he also says he was “into her” back in his college days.

    Now, I certainly believe that neither film was intentionally modeled on Rand’s work, but there are enough thematic similarities, and even some plot parallels, to make me think it’s likely some of the stuff that had resonated him back in his early 20s is still knocking around the back of his head.

  • 5 LP // Jul 10, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Rand definitely has that ‘stickiness’ factor, so that if you ever, even just for 2 days after reading Atlas Shrugged, saw that world through her lens, you can never quite shake it off, even as your philosophy matures beyond it.

  • 6 Jawaid Bazyar // May 23, 2015 at 12:08 am

    What does it say about the state of modern pop culture when a film with the simple thesis that excellence is a virtue is assaulted from all sides as “Randian propaganda”.

    I mean, really.

    If you go back before the 70s, there is absolutely nothing unusual about the theme of Bird’s movies. Celebrating achievement? There was a time when that was cool, before today’s philosophy of leftist nihilism became dominant.

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