Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.
This is indeed the kind of film one gets lost in, a symbiotic showcase of story, design and execution. The tale begins with our hero, a rat named Remy, recounting the first time he realized his special gift — the ability to create fantastic cuisine via a highly acute sense of smell. To him, food is a sensory experience, not just an available pile of garbage out near the sewers. Of course, this does not go over well with his extended vermin family. His brother thinks Remy is acting spoiled, while his Dad doesn’t understand how any rodent can abandon his family. When a freak accident separates the clan, Remy ends up in Paris, and soon finds the famous five star restaurant Gusteau’s. Unfortunately, the eatery has fallen on hard times, losing much of its status and reputation, thanks in large part to new chef Skinner and cruel critic Anton Ego.
As luck would have it, Remy befriends garbage boy Linguini. He’s a meek manchild, working in the kitchen of the famed eatery out of desperation — and a debt to his dead mother. One night, he messes up the soup, and Remy runs in to try and save it. Turns out the potage is a hit, and Skinner is desperate to discover the secret. Before long, Remy and Linguini have teamed up, turning Gusteau’s fortunes around with the help of the refectory’s staff, including the commanding Colette. But forces are conspiring to foil this partnership. The rat’s family has returned, and they love the fact that their sibling in squalor lives in a neverending food bank. Our human hero is also hounded by his newfound reputation. It has even peaked the interest of Ego, who thought he had buried the business ages ago.
While this all sounds incredibly complex, the truth is that Ratatouille is breezy and basic. It exudes a kind of smoothness that causes all confusion to pass away simply and sincerely. It shows more imagination in its first five minutes than most crass commercial CGI excuses for family films. It resonates with a kind of emotion that causes you to root for the heroes, hiss the numerous villains, and wonder on whose side the various ancillary character’s loyalties rest. Bird takes his time telling his tale, letting sequences of silly slapstick monopolize as much time as quieter, more intimate moments. It has to be repeated here that the pacing is all wrong for the weaned on home video set. Ratatouille wants to create a legend, and such mythologizing takes time.
If you can get into the movie’s relaxed groove, you’ll be richly rewarded in ways that consistently surprise you. Remy’s struggles to find solace after seemingly losing his family are heartfelt and sad. Similarly, Linguini is not just the comic relief. He’s a sweet soul with a decent spirit — he just can’t help the fact that he’s unexceptional. Even the villains shock us with their subtle character layers. Peter O’Toole is absolutely splendid as Ego, giving each one of his lines the kind of acerbic ambience that makes them consistently sinister. But when he gets his comeuppance of sorts, the way the movie illustrates his feelings is enough to bring a tear of joy to your eye. While the theme of being true to yourself sort of gets lost in the shifting storyline — though the “anyone can cook” maxim is repeated incessantly — Bird makes sure that we understand how it applies to everyone. In fact, one of Linguini’s best lines is a simply affirmation: “”Tonight, I’m just your waiter.”
As with most Pixar product, the voice acting is uniformly outstanding. Patton Oswalt is an odd choice to voice Remy, especially given his less than family friendly stand up comedy career (parents — don’t go running out to buy his CD and DVD catalog for the wee ones just yet). But here, the comedian does what he’s mastered on stage. He draws us in, using an amiable ‘aw shucks’ quality to counter his frequently blue bombshells. On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Holm is all Napoleonic complex as the tiny, terrified head chef of Gusteau’s. Making a fortune whoring out the restaurant’s reputation, Skinner is indeed panicked that Linguini’s fame will foul his plans, and Holm’s captures that paranoia perfectly. As Colette, a barely recognizable Janeane Garofalo is all Parisian girl power. Through her delicate accent, she exudes both determination and romance. Other standouts include Brad Garrett as the voice of friendly ghost Gusteau and Lou Romano as Linguini.
But the true stars here are the many artists and designers who toiled endlessly to realize the magnificent gleam of Paris. There are several shots that appear lifted directly from a photorealistic rendering of the skyline, and when Remy races through many of the city’s streets and byways, the attention to detail is maddening. It’s the same inside Gusteau’s kitchen. As with most interior spaces, Pixar amplifies the nooks and crannies, coming up with more and more ingenious ways of working our characters through the maze-like mayhem. This is definitely the kind of movie you have to see twice — once just to get the basics down, and the second time to drink in all the particulars. Unlike The Incredibles, which was simply the best comic book super hero movie ever made, Ratatouille wants to compete, optically, with the other wonders created by its corporate namesake. It does so magnificently.
Oddly enough, there are those wary of the film because it contains, at least for them, a decided ‘ick’ factor. Granted, for people who hate spiders, a film like Eight Legged Freaks of Arachnophobia might be a bit much to handle. Similar, the Empire State showdown between Peter Jackson’s Kong and that armada of bi-planes was so expertly visualized that anyone with a hatred of heights got instant vertigo. But to be put off by cartoon mice in a make believe restaurant seems a tad…specious. After all, this is animation, not real life, and while Remy and his clan are given the full blown bubonic plague treatment (some of these creatures are, well, ratty), they also speak and exhibit sophisticated motor skills. When was the last time you saw a lice ridden rodent whip up a delicious looking omelet. Besides, if you could make Mouse Hunt a sizable hit with a lifelike CG pest, you can handle these animated animals.
And yet, one can’t help but feel that this fantastic film will eventually underperform. Parents of antsy offspring will tell their SUV subordinates of their progeny’s predicable inability to sit still, and glumly conclude “It’s no Finding Nemo”. Others will be desperate to look for the instant hook of likeability and argue that Bird bypasses such shallowness for something more meaty. Whatever the case may be, don’t let the ennui-laced word of mouth dissuade you from seeing one of the best movies of the Summer. Proving once again that only Pixar can consistently make animated movie magic, Ratatouille is destined to go down as one of their best. And when you consider the canon it must compare to, that’s some statement.