Director : Brad Bird
Screenplay : Brad Bird (story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, and Brad Bird)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2007
As have all their previous films, Pixar's Ratatouille, which tells the unlikely story of a country rat who yearns to be a Parisian chef, stands out among the other computer-animated movies of late. Ever since the release of 1995's Toy Story, the first feature-length computer-animated film (who knew then what it foretold), Pixar has consistently turned out superior animated entertainment--films that kids adore, but are sophisticated enough to enthrall even the most discerning adult viewer. Comparing Pixar's films to the likes of the Ice Age and Shrek franchises, Madagascar, Chicken Little, A Shark's Life and the rest of their manic, celebrity-voice-stuff, pop-culture-adoring ilk is like comparing a fine wine with light beer: Both have their pleasures and intoxicating qualities, but the former offers so many more delights to every part of the palette.
Ratatouille marks the return of Brad Bird, who directed Pixar's 2004 hit The Incredibles and before that worked on The Simpsons and directed The Iron Giant (1999), one of the great underappreciated gems of contemporary animation. He works similar magic in Ratatouille, taking a classic underdog narrative and giving it a new twist. He doesn't give in to easy gags and forced humor, but rather develops his scenario with a light touch that allows the humor to emerge naturally. He does allow for a few frantic chase sequences, but they are developed with such finesse and regard for the characters' perspectives (think a rodent's eye point-of-view scurrying around a kitchen that is an obstacle course of death at every turn) that they play more like musical numbers than action setpieces.
Bird also marshals Pixar's enormous technological capacity to great effect, creating twilight images of Paris that literally shimmer. His animators also overcome the obstacle that hindered last summer's Cars (2006) in finding the perfect mix of natural and anthropomorphized movements for the characters. The film's hero, Remy (Patton Oswalt) is, after all, a rat, but he is wonderfully expressive and undeniably cute without sacrificing the inherent nature of what he is. Much of his expressiveness is silent, and the artists find completely convincing ways for him to convey wonderfully subtle shades of delight, frustration, passion, and sadness with nothing more than slight gestures of body language.
When the film opens, Remy is living with his enormous rat family in the attic of an old woman's house in the country. Remy, however, is different from his gruff father (Brian Dennehy) and somewhat dim-witted brother (Peter Sohn): He has an advanced sense of smell that leads him to delight in the fine culinary arts. While his brethren happily root through garbage, Remy dreams of being a chef in the restaurant of famed Parisian chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), who is the toast of the town and also the bestselling author of a cookbook aimed at spreading his artistry to the masses. This nod to egalitarianism gets him in hot water with snooty food critics, but it is crucial to the film's underlying message about the nature of giftedness and the need for passion in one's pursuits. The film's title, after all, refers to a “peasant” dish that is made into fine cuisine through passion and imagination.
When Remy is later separated from his family and winds up in Paris, he finds himself just outside of Gusteau's restaurant. The famous chef, however, has passed away, leaving the restaurant in the hands of Skinner (Ian Holm), a short-statured but ambitious crock of a chef who wants to enrich himself by selling Gusteau's name on cheap frozen entrees. The restaurant's unlikely would-be savior is Linguini (Lou Romano), a goofy garbage boy who is the unknowing heir to Gusteau's culinary empire. The only problem: Linguini can't cook … at all. Remy, however, can, and once they team up (with Remy hiding under Linguini's hat and using his hair to control him like a marionette puppet), they can do no wrong.
Part of the surprise of Ratatouille is the unexpected way in which it unfolds. Brad Bird's script has some of the expected dramatic turns--including the part where Linguini gets too big for his own britches, which causes a rift between him and his Remy--but it also holds a number of surprises, especially regarding the character of Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a tall, lanky, and very severe food critic who looks like he wandered in from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Ego is the film's ostensible villain, but what Bird does with the character in the film's final act is not only a genuine surprise, but a true sign of the film's deep-seated humanity, something so many animated films aimed at kids studiously lack. Sure, such films usually have well-meaning, but often contrived and awkwardly delivered “messages” that no one short of Dr. Evil could disparage, but they rarely have a soul. Ratatouille, like The Incredibles, offers a genuinely sophisticated message about the nature of human (and rodent) ability: While some people are more gifted than others, there are no absolutes regarding who can be gifted, and it is up to us to find our passions and share them with others.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Disney / Pixar