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Ratatouille   A-

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Brad Bird
Writer: Brad Bird
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O'Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's something about rodents that makes for exquisite family storytelling. Offscreen, they're hideous vermin -- spreaders of filth and disease responsible for entire eras of human misery. In the hands of a talented creative voice, however, they become paragons of heroism. Why? They're natural underdogs for starters, stuck in a permanent spot at the bottom of the food chain. Yet they also exhibit tremendous resourcefulness, and can thrive in places where other species fear to tread. And for all the problems they cause, they come across as a little misunderstood -- meek scavengers just trying to get by. Give those elements to the right people, and the results are magic: Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH; E.B White's tenacious Templeton; Reepicheep, Narnia's premiere dispenser of buckled swashes; and that age-old standby at the top of Pixar's sister company, emitting cheerful pluck from T-shirts and watch faces aplenty.

To their ranks, director Brad Bird adds a new and marvelous member: Remy, bewhiskered lover of fine food who belongs to the one species that no kitchen ever wants to see. Ratatouille begins with his seemingly shopworn quest to find his place in the world, but with Bird's understanding of how Rattus rattus can evoke our sympathies, it quickly becomes another unabashed triumph for the most reliable studio in show business. Expertly blending silent-film slapstick, culinary glee, visual imagination, and the expected cocktail of witty dialogue and endearing characters, it proves to this summer of sequels that nothing works quite so well as a little bit of original thinking.

The mixture starts with its hero, who dominates Ratatouille far more than those of Pixar's ensemble-oriented earlier films. Remy is a connoisseur in a world full of philistines, his enhanced sense of taste rendering the usual rodent menu of trashcan castoffs utterly unpalatable. He labors mightily to guide his well-meaning clan towards more refined dishes, but all they can think to do with his sensibilities is check their food for poison. Then a disastrous escape from the farmhouse where they live leaves him alone on the streets of Paris, where he discovers the bistro made famous by his favorite TV chef. It stands waiting to fulfill his every culinary dream... if only he can figure out how to get in the door.

Bird adopts a rat's-eye view of the entire proceedings, showing first Remy's farmhouse home and then the glorious streets of Paris through a series of sewer grates, heating ducts, and inconspicuous crawlspaces. The CGI camera shoots along the hidden byways favored by rodent-kind, giving ordinary objects a marvelously original perspective and helping Ratatouille find a properly distinctive visual palate. It also helps endear us to Remy as a character by stressing both his lonely isolation and the wonders of the new world around him. Aided by the voice of Patton Oswalt, he makes for Pixar's most sympathetic protagonist yet: full of energy and imagination set loose in the most beautiful city on earth.

Another key ingredient comes as a convenient (and rather forced) bit of plot development. Having found himself at Gusteau's Restaurant -- once a shining beacon of gastronomical delights, now fallen on hard times -- Remy endeavors to scheme his way into the kitchen. But with the customers testy and the head chef (voiced by Ian Holm) on a very nasty warpath, it proves quite a challenge. Enter Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), a butterfingers screwup working in the washroom and desperate to hold onto his job. When Remy is caught and given to the boy for disposal, the two instead reach a tentative understanding. Hidden under Linguini's hat, the rat can manipulate his partner's arms and hands by pulling on tufts of hair. Thus, he remains safe from prying eyes while using Linguini to finally create meals like he always knew he could. Linguini, for his part, gets all the credit for the cooking... and for restoring Gusteau's to its former glory in the process.

The mechanics of the scenario feel a little shaky at times, especially in Linguini's status as a living marionette controlled by Remy. The notion comes up suddenly, has little logical justification, and smacks of hasty plotting crammed in to make things work. And yet it also provides a remarkable fulcrum for the film's inspired series of pratfalls and blunders, as Remy frantically tries to create new masterpieces through the fingers of his not-always-willing accomplice. Bird invests Linguini with the bumbling grace of Buster Keaton, while milking every possibility for kitchen-based mayhem he can find. Utensils go flying, aprons are set aflame, and the expected chaos of a dinner-rush restaurant becomes a frantically funny ballet where Bird can send his protagonists soaring. The clownish elegance of these sequences is matched only by the quiet way they advance the story: pitting Linguini against his increasingly crazed boss, sending him into the arms of a hard-as-nails fellow chef (voiced by Janeane Garofalo), and earning the attention of evil food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole) who really really wants to see Gusteau's closed for good.

Sketchy contrivances aside, Ratatouille keeps its plotline exquisitely balanced, allowing each development to unfold neatly without wasting any undue time. It also has a deep and abiding love for the joys of food, which forms the final ingredient in its brilliant mix. Bird devotes affectionate yet deceptively casual attention to Remy's various recipes, briefly touching on aspects of preparation, presentation, and consumption as the little rat's purpose in life slowly comes to fruition. The passion for cooking emerges in more abstract cinematic terms as well, with swirling colors and sounds to define how different tastes can be blended together. Bird also gives Remy a guardian angel in the ghost of Gusteau himself (voiced by Brad Garrett), who inspires both rodent and audience with the admonishment that "anyone can cook." And an entire tribe of caring but clueless fellow rats provides a reliable source of comedic frustration, as Remy watches them cram everything into their gullets with no concern for quality or nuance. (Believe me, plenty of critics out here have felt his pain.)

Like its Pixar predecessors, Ratatouille excels because it knows how to combine all of that into a warm and funny package. It brings thematic coherence to disparate ideas, while presenting its time-tested message of a square peg finding his bliss without insulting our intelligence in the process. Not that we should have had any doubts on that front. By now, part of me almost wants to see Pixar really screw one of these up, just for novelty's sake. Fat chance of that happening. Not as long as people like Bird can still conjure such marvels there. Walt Disney liked to say that all of his accomplishments began with a mouse. Ratatouille brings that equation full circle, providing a furry, pink-tailed, and utterly irresistible affirmation of mainstream animation at its best.

Review published 06.28.2007.

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