In Film Comedy, Geoff King wrote ‘race is another arena in which comedy can function as a safety net, permitting the use of material that might otherwise be controversial or impossible to include in mainstream film’ (King 2002: p.149). While King talks about race and comedy in live action films, this study will focus on race as a component in animation spanning the early hand-drawn cartoons of Mickey Mouse through to the critically acclaimed Computer Generated Imagery Pixar animated feature Ratatouille (Bird, US, 2007). Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock underpin my argument that Ratatouille ‘works as a contemporary fable that celebrates the acceptance of all kinds of difference, as Remy’s innate talents and desires run counter to normative rat behaviour’ (2010: p.118)
Ratatouille is a comedic animated feature that tells the story of Remy, a rat that dreams of becoming a gourmet chef at one of the finest restaurants in Paris called Gusteau’s. After being separated from his family of rats, Remy forms an, at first uneasy but increasingly comfortable and eventually respectful alliance, with a clumsy human, Linguini. Remy hides under Linguini’s toque and manipulates his movements by pulling on his hair guiding his actions and chef skills – thus portraying Linguini as a talented chef and achieving his own dream of cooking.
The underlying theme of Ratatouille – chasing a dream and believing in yourself despite what others may think of you – or as Gusteau puts it ‘you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from’ is a theme that has universal resonance with people of all ages, faiths and races. With this in mind, it is very easy to say that if Remy were a human, Ratatouille would be a film about prejudice and unacceptance within the work place. However, and perhaps this is an ‘off the wall’ argument, Paul Wells states that ‘animation “penetrates” into the areas...which cannot be conceptualised and illustrated in any other form’ (2002: p.59). I would argue that because Remy is a rat, the film challenges the audience to examine their own perspective of how as individuals they apply and/or perpetuate stereotypes and labels – whether they are human or animal. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam explain ‘stereotypes of some communities merely make the target group uncomfortable, but the community has the social power to combat and resist them; stereotypes of other communities participate in a continuum of prejudicial social policy’ (1994: p.183). But there is more to Remy and Ratatouille that challenges the audience to think less about normative rat behaviour and more about long held perceptions of people or animals not like them. This is illustrated in the scene where Remy’s father, Django, takes him to see a shop with dead rats hanging from various traps. Django represents an older generation of rats that only believes the worst in humans and attempts to enforce his views on Remy; his son rejects his father’s views because his most recent experience of humans – particularly Linguini – tells him something different. Remy is challenging the old order and in the words of Arnold Krupat, he is epitomizing Krupat’s view of multiculturalism where Krupat states that ‘multiculturalism refers to an order of instruction concerned to present that which a dominant culture has defined as “other” and “different” – usually, of course, minor and inferior as well – in such a way that it may interrogate and challenge that which the dominant culture has defined as familiar and its own’ (Goldberg 1994: p.374)
While many audiences would have found Ratatouille comedic and charming, Disney has not always had it so good. The reality of prejudice and racism is that it has a darker side. While Mickey Mouse as a character was generally welcomed in America, he created uproar in Europe and in particular became a target for Nazi Germany. In his debut in the animated short Steamboat Willie (Disney, US, 1928), Mickey Mouse was criticized in a Nazi Journal Pomerania ‘The Dictatorship’ (1931) – in an article called ‘The Mickey Mouse Scandal’. The article stated that ‘Mickey Mouse is a stultification devise sent over with the Young-Plan capital. Healthy instinct informs every decent girl and upright boy that the vile and dirty vermin, which import bacteria into the animal kingdom, cannot be made into an ideal animal type’ (2002: p.80). When we compare Mickey Mouse’s earlier depictions to Remy in Ratatouille, we see different species but similar devices that define them, for example in both Steamboat Willie and Ratatouille the ‘vermin’ utilize everyday items to improvise jazz music. Jazz is of course synonymous with the Southern black US population, such as that of New Orleans. Jazz also features in Disney’s The Jungle Book (Reitherman, US, 1967) but goes further in terms of racial stereotyping because in that instance it has orang-utans that play jazz music and in Dumbo (Armstrong, US, 1941) the music is provided by black Crows with distinct Negroid voices. In relevance to Wells who notes ‘animals have a central place in cartoon films...their function had largely been comic or comforting, or symbolic at best. The representation of animals also in some ways reconciles the problems of representing ‘adult’ behaviour in animated human beings’ (2002: p.56). Today Mickey Mouse is a loud, bright significant economic face for Disney and a cultural star for all audiences – in effect a shining beacon for vermin. Remy on the other hand is a very inquisitive character who not only deals with human emotions and issues but embraces them. The significant difference between Mickey and Remy is that while Remy showcases his voice verbally and creatively, Mickey started out as a silent movie star. Intriguingly as a human audience we hear Remy speak as a human, but the humanoid characters in Ratatouille hear him squeak like a rat, which reminisces the early Mickey Mouse who whistled.
Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks states that for a black man there is one pathway and it is to become white. Fanon writes ‘white men consider themselves superior to black men...black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect’ (1967: p.10). While I am not suggesting by any means that Remy is a representation of a particular race the argument that Fanon puts forward is that in order to be accepted one must adopt a certain identity and the counter to this is evident in Ratatouille. This is demonstrated in the scene where Remy is alone talking to the ‘ghostly figure’ of Gusteau and confesses ‘I pretend to be a rat for my father, I pretend to be a human with Linguini...I know who I am, why do I need to pretend?’ The film’s story cleverly reflects its origins. By this I mean that Remy as a character in an animated movie becomes an animator by manipulating Linguini like a puppet. Remy learns and discovers how to perform as a human and as a result is allowed to fulfil his dream by using Linguini as his ‘white’ mask.
For children, Disney animated films are an education into moral life and for parents they trust in the public image/symbol of Mickey Mouse. Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock state Disney films ‘combine enchantment and innocence in narrating stories that help children understand who they are, what societies are about, and what it means to construct a world of play and fantasy in an adult environment’ (2010: p.92). Ratatouille is a sensible, brave children’s movie but it works on so many different levels for adult audiences. This study acknowledges the understanding of the past and present of race equality in animated movies. Where Esther Leslie remarked about Mickey Mouse ‘whether Jewish or Negro, he was America’s immigrant heart’ (2002: p.81), Remy is a rat with no pretentions for fame and fortune who stays true to his heart by serving what is described as a ‘peasant dish’ to win over Anton Ego, a highly pretentious food critic. Towards the end of the film, Ego’s critique of Remy as ‘the finest chef in France’ and Linguini’s transformation from wannabe chef to waiter, seals Remy’s mould breaking achievement and the culmination of his dream. The final moments of Ratatouille acknowledge that Remy no longer has to hide behind a ‘white mask’ and while he may not have won over all of his critiques he has achieved a level of equality and respect that could have only ever have been dreamt of. On the contrary Remy’s achievement is all the greater because not only has he won over his human friends but he has also gained the respect of his immediate family and wider rat community. Remy’s achievement may be a fragile peace but this is so often the case when history is made and preconceptions are being brought down.
Steamboat Willie (Walt Disney US 1928)
Dumbo (Sam Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts US 1941)
The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman US 1967)
Ratatouille (Brad Bird US 2007)
Fanon, Frantz (1967) Black Skin, White Masks Grove Press: England.
Shohat, Ella & Stam, Robert (1994) ‘Stereotype, Realism and the Struggle Over Representation’ in Unthinking Eurocentrism London: Routledge, p.183- 362
Goldberg, David Theo (1994) Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader Blackwell Publishers: Oxford UK.
Wells, Paul (2002) Animation: Genre and Authorship Wallflower Press: London.
Leslie, Esther (2002) Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde Verso, London & New York.
Giroux, Henry A. & Pollock, Grace (2010) The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, UK.