Wednesday, August 22, 2007

In Theaters: Ratatouille

Ratatouille poster courtesy Impawards
It took several weeks, a 5-mile bus ride, and the willingness to be a 26-year-old man sitting alone in a theatre full of children and families (I just know I’m on a watch list somewhere) for me to see RATATOUILLE, and I would gladly have gone through a lot more. As should you, if you haven’t made it yet; the animation is so gorgeous that it deserves to be seen on a large screen, and anything Brad Bird does needs to be caught in first anyway. It’s an unlikely triumph for Disney and Pixar, combining the low-key story of a rat aspiring to be a chef (the sort of thing you’d expect from an old-school animated short), an unwieldy title, and unexpected intellectual depth to create what has to be the studios’ most offbeat offering to date.

The star of the film is Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt), a rat with unusually well-developed senses of taste and smell. This makes him useful as a poison checker for the pack, but he dislikes eating garbage and treating food as fuel; he enjoys combining tastes and finding fresh things, and at the humble country house they infest, Remy watches cooking shows and reads a cookbook by the late French master Chef Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), whose controversial motto is “Anyone Can Cook.” When the pack is discovered and has to flee down the river (in an adorable miniature flotilla), Remy is separated from his family and ends up in the sewers beneath Paris. He scampers up to Gusteau’s restaurant, once a five star legend but now down to three following a scathing review by harsh critic Anton Ego (voice of Peter O’Toole) and Gusteau’s death. Remy happens to be watching as aspiring chef Linguini (Lou Romano), stuck doing the cleaning, accidentally spills a pot of soup and tries to salvage it. Remy sees some obvious mistakes on his part and rushes to correct them- the soup he ends up salvaging earns high praise and gets Linguini hired on as a full chef, under the tutelage of the lovely-and-short-tempered Colette (Janeane Garofalo). Linguini is in over his head, but when Remy is discovered, the two strike up a secret partnership. Controlling Linguini by pulling his hair, Remy helps the young chef rise to minor stardom. Meanwhile the head chef Skinner (Ian Holm), who has been exploiting Gusteau’s image for years to sell frozen foods, and is set to fully inherit the restaurant if no heir to the master is found, is saddened to discover that Linguini is, in fact, Gusteau’s illegitimate son. He tries to keep this a secret and up the pressure on Linguini, who has been striking up a relationship with Colette, and who of course is dependent entirely on the rat in his hair. The renewed success of Gusteau’s draws the renewed attention of Ego, who thought he’d had the last word. And then Remy’s family shows up.

Brad Bird’s last film, THE INCREDIBLES, was about talent and ability, and was criticized in some quarters as being elitist for showing superpowered humans oppressed by people who wanted everyone to be equal. Here Bird refines his point; not everyone can be a great chef, but a great chef can come from anywhere- it takes natural talent (Remy’s heightened senses), willingness to learn (the lessons he takes from the book and the kitchen), and fearlessness. Remy is transgressing the rules of two societies by forgoing stealing food and working secretly in a human kitchen, and there’s some surprisingly interesting material on human/rat relations. People do kill rats, after all, and at one point Remy’s father Django (Brian Dennehy) shows him a store which proudly hangs dead rats in its window. But Remy is determined to press forward; progress and the passing of torches is emphasized, with Linguini the literal heir being guided by the true spiritual heir. But in this, the past is not forgotten. Like THE INCREDIBLES, there’s a heavy generational aspect. Most movies would be happy to just make a good statement about the nature of art like this one does, but there are other things at play in the fringes.

The film is consistently funny, hinging on equal parts banter and physical comedy. The cast is in fine form, with even the more famous voices buried in their characters. And the animation is simply beautiful, with lifelike textures and a dazzling use of color. Everything is soft-edged and gently lit like an old Technicolor movie. The food is so gorgeous you want to grab it off the screen. And the rats are decidedly adorable,

RATATOUILLE is one of the best films of the year; it is fun, thoughtful, layered, agreeable, and easygoing. It is a salute to good taste, and to the daring exploration of art, and the power of creativity to bridge generations and bring people together. Brad Bird is now three for three, and Pixar’s record remains unblemished as well.

Something’s gotta trip up these guys eventually. I just know it.

Story by Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, and Jan Pinkava

Written and directed by Brad Bird

Grade: A

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