In attempting to make a movie about a rat in a kitchen—dare I say it?—appetizing, director Brad Bird, for the follow-up to 2004’s superlative The Incredibles, hasn’t given himself an easy task. Which, in the end, just makes his newest triumph that much sweeter. After last year’s Cars, Ratatouille is a return to form for Pixar—a boisterous ode to culinary delights, artistic inspiration, egalitarianism, camaraderie, family, and Paris, marrying unparalleled CG splendor with humor that’s part classical Disney cartoonishness, part Jacques Tati-style physical drollness. The latter quality is found in Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), a noodle-bodied no-talent who’s hired as garbage boy at fallen-from-grace bistro Gusteau’s, only to turn into the star of Paris’s gastronomic scene after discovering a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) with a gift for cooking. A picky eater obsessed with deceased chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) and his book Anyone Can Cook, Remy finds himself adrift in the City of Lights after being separated from his clan while fleeing their rural cottage home. In Linguini, Remy obtains sanctuary from the big, foreign city, as well as the opportunity to fulfill his dream of becoming a chef, since the rodent quickly learns that—by pulling on his human friend’s hair—he can control Linguini like a marionette.
Remy’s maneuvering of Linguini is a deft trick but it’s Bird who’s the truly exceptional puppetmaster, exhibiting a marvelous skill at manipulating scale for emotional and comedic effect, from his graceful fluctuation between close-ups and master shots of his animal hero (the former amplifying his outsized force of personality, the latter capturing his miniscule place in the dangerous world), to a particularly beautiful foreground-background shot of Remy and Linguini along the Seine that visually scales the two into kindred spirits. Bird’s character models—including greedy Gusteau’s chef Skinner (Ian Holm), intent on padding his pockets via a déclassé frozen-food line—appear slightly more round and rubbery than those found in The Incredibles. Nonetheless, they still move with the same lightening-quick fluidity, a fact confirmed by a host of rambunctious sequences in which Remy hops and scurries through varied locales such as Parisian traffic, motorboats, and Gusteau’s kitchen. It’s this final environment that’s the heart and soul of Ratatouille, envisioned as a bustling, overcrowded gourmand wonderland in which everything from bubbling soup cauldrons and congested shelves to flailing human limbs wielding cooking utensils help contribute to a conception of cooking as some sort of deliriously magical process.
As always, Pixar’s technological invention remains peerless, both for its stunning detail as well as its inventive flair, evidenced by Bird’s use of a black background illuminated by swirling, exploding streams of color to convey the overpowering sensation of flavors. What truly separates this vigorous adventure from the animated film pack, however, isn’t just its superficial beauty, clever writing, or nimble direction, but its enchanting democratic spirit. Ratatouille may eventually be a tad protracted but its ingratiating desire to jam-pack something for everyone into its 110 minutes is in line with its touching advocacy of tolerance, self-definition, and believing in one’s ability to achieve the seemingly impossible. At film’s conclusion, it’s neither Remy nor Linguini who proves to be the tale’s hero; instead, it’s food critic Anton Eco (Peter O’Toole), a gaunt, arrogant, and fussy specter who—looking like a long-lost Addams Family relative—displays courage by upholding one of his profession’s most important duties: to defend and champion that which is new. In light of his sterling track record, showering the singularly talented Bird with more praise hardly qualifies as the same sort of bravery. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s richly deserved.
A feast for the eyes: Colors are solid and shadow detail is flabbergasting, as in Remy's frightful journey through the sewers of Paris, and with the exception of a single combing-like effect I spotted but almost missed on a restaurant's awning, the image is without fault. The audio is nearly as fine, boasting expansive, Van Helsing-loud surrounds, broad dynamic range, and crystal-clear dialogue.
Slim but tasty pickings: a bunch of previews (including one for Pixar's promising WALL-E), two shorts (the infotational Your Friend the Rat and the Oscar-nominated Lifted), three deleted scenes with commentary from the filmmakers, and the lovely "Fine Food & Film" featurette, which compares the creative process-its pressures, commitments, and influences-of a director (Brad Bird) and a master chef (Thomas Keller).
Ratatouille is darling, even if I'm still of the opinion that a rat will eat your face if you let your guard down for a second.