2007Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Ian Holm, Patton Oswalt, Peter O’Toole
o rats belong in the kitchen? I never thought they’d ask. But then writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and a computer-bound team of whiz-kid animators came along to prove me wrong. The answer, apparently, is yes, but only if the rat in question happens to be a brilliant cook. Luckily, Remy, a rodent with a taste for haute cuisine, turns out to be the “finest chef in France.”
That’s the set-up for Ratatouille, the latest computer-generated film from Pixar, the animation studio whose work has been one of the few positive developments in the past decade of moviegoing. The best of the Pixar films manage to seem both effortless and startlingly imaginative, both classic and contemporary. Despite relying on cutting-edge technology, these movies don’t feel flashy or fussy. They prefer movement and character to spectacle, and glide along on simple, elegant narratives instead of the frantic pop-culture jumbles favored by their most successful competitors (Ice Age, Shrek). Unlike last summer’s Cars, a fine movie that nevertheless felt like a bit of a misstep, I’m happy to report that Ratatouille stands proudly alongside Pixar’s finest work.
When we first meet Remy (Patton Oswalt), he’s in the process of convincing his rat brethren that it’s a waste to eat garbage; as proof he adds a fresh mushroom to a pilfered bit of cheese, garnishes it with a sprig of rosemary, and toasts it with a lightning bolt. After being separated from his (literal) junk-food loving family, Remy finds himself zipping along through the sewers beneath a famous Paris restaurant. Following his nose, he pops up in the kitchen just in time to toss a few spices into a soup, turning it into a culinary masterpiece, and earning raves from a food critic. By a series of bizarre circumstances, Remy ends up directing human avatar Linguine, a former garbage boy, and transforming the restaurant into the hottest dinner spot in France.
Like all of Pixar’s work, the devil is in the details. From the tap-tap of raindrops on dead leaves accompanying the opening shot to the toothpaste cap serving as a goblet in a rats-only wine bar, every shot in Ratatouille is rich with layered details of color, sound, and production design. The digital Paris on display here feels less like an invented world than a discovered one—the kitchen at Remy’s restaurant looks and sounds like a real high-end kitchen, complete with bronze cookware and a multi-ethnic staff. There should be an “ick” factor at work here, but to the film’s credit, the various rodents manage to feel harmless while still looking, moving and sounding like rats.
Most striking about Ratatouille, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, is the strong scent of silent comedy it carries. Early on, the film stops for fifteen minutes for a chase scene as Remy scampers through a restaurant, attempting to avoid detection. He flies under cookware, from one cart to another, flips through wall pipes, uses spatulas and kitchen knives as diving boards and walkways. The effect is less like the frenetic set pieces of modern action movies, and more like the kind of nimble, boundlessly inventive chase sequences in old Buster Keaton pictures. Unlike the irritating wink-wink, nudge-nudge silliness of Shrek, the comedy here derives from visual gags, from the well timed wink to the innocent expression, from the sad slope of a Remy’s shoulders to the heart pounding beneath his silvery-blue fur. If Ratatouille has any flaws, it’s that its human characters fail to live up to the verve of their four-legged co-stars, who hurtle through one comic situation after another with aplomb. To catch every clever bit collected here, you’d have to watch the whole movie in slow-mo, preferably on a seventy-foot screen. Nevertheless, I can’t resist but point out a few favorite moments: there’s the stodgy critic who lives in an apartment shaped like a coffin, the body-builder rat who flexes a golf-ball sized bicep, and Remy’s simple wag of a finger as he realizes that his soup needs just one more ingredient to be perfect.
That’s the true miracle of this wonderful, whirling movie—it´s not content to tell us Remy’s a chef, and leave it at that; I’m convinced that Brad Bird and his cohorts are actually interested in the cooking process. This rat-in-the-kitchen is more than just a clever conceit; it’s one of the most eloquent tributes to food seen on the silver screen since Big Night. Remy acts, thinks, moves—even looks—like a chef. And somehow, every one of his dishes looks delicious. By the time the credits rolled, I was ready to eat at his restaurant. Is it tougher to make a great movie, or to convince an audience that keeping a rat in a kitchen is a good idea? How about both at once?
Ratatouille is currently in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-07-02