Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ratatouille / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Remy: Patton Oswalt
Linguini: Lou Romano
Skinner: Ian Holm
Colette: Janeane Garofalo
Django: Brian Dennehy
Emile: Peter Sohn
Gusteau: Brad Garrett
Anton Ego: Peter O’Toole

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios present a film written and directed by Brad Bird. Running time: 110 min. Rated G.

I probably sound like a broken record, bowing as I do to the technical and artistic triumphs of Pixar Animation Studios every time they release a new film, but… Gosh darn it! Those guys are good!

“Ratatouille” marks Pixar’s first release under their new contract with Walt Disney Pictures, and although some employees in Disney’s recently formed CGI division are upset to be looking for work again, these companies couldn’t be a more perfect match together. Disney is returning to the 2-D animation that they revolutionized cinema with some 70 years ago, and Pixar is continuing to provide the best quality family entertainment in the CGI market.

“Ratatouille” itself feels like a throwback to a purer era in American animation. Writer/director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) doesn’t rely on the pop culture referencing and crude bathroom humor that prevails in what passes for family entertainment these days. Instead, he tells a good, warm-hearted story with genuine wit and a moral message at its core.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt of TV’s “King of Queens”) is a rat—a highly unusual rat. While his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) and father Django (Brian Dennehy, “Everyone’s Hero”) and their entire colony dig through the garbage, Remy explores the inner workings of an old farmhouse kitchen. He discovers a unique ability to appreciate flavors and smells, and a gift for combining them. His fellow rats put up with his eccentricities because his gift makes him a great rat poison detector, but Remy yearns to break free of his scavenger existence and cook like the once-great Parisian chef Gustaeu (Brad Garrett, TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”).

It is obvious that Bird is a fan of Don Bluth’s classic “The Secret of NIMH”. During the opening sequence and throughout the film he shows us the rats in silhouette with only their eyes glowing orange, just as the rats of NIMH appeared. But like those rats, the rodents here are not the evil vermin which they appear to be to human eyes. They are simply trying to survive in a world that has pigeonholed them into a certain stereotype. Do you see the moral theme forming here?

Remy is separated from his colony in a spectacular sequence involving a crazy old woman with a shotgun and a wild ride down the rapids of the Paris sewer system. He winds up at Gusteau’s restaurant, which has fallen out of favor since the chef’s death. Remy seizes his chance to live his dream when he helps a garbage boy named Linguini (Lou Romano), who becomes the toast of the town by taking credit for the recipes that Remy prepares. Of course, the world of fine eateries would be horrified to learn that a rat had infiltrated their ranks.

Chef Skinner (Ian Holm, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), the heir apparent of the Gusteau Empire, begins seeing a rat around the kitchen and suspects something is not right with the formally untrained Linguini. Skinner’s concerns run deeper when he learns that Linguini is actually Gusteau’s illegitimate son and true heir, thus threatening his chances of profiting off the Gusteau name through a line of frozen foods.

Two other characters are significant to the plot. The first is Collette (Janeane Garofalo, TV’s “The West Wing”), the only female chef in Gusteau’s kitchen. She develops a relationship with Linguini, struggling with the fact that she has had to work so hard to get where she is, while it seems to have just fallen in his lap. The other is the food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole, “Venus”), also known as “The Grim Eater.” Everyone’s fates will eventually rest on his judgment of the food.

Perhaps I have gone too deeply into the plot, but reliving the memory of this film is such a pleasure. What makes the filmmakers at Pixar so special is their astute attention to detail. There is one moment in particular that illuminates the intense sense of observation that goes into the crafting of their films. Remy runs from Linguini in fear when they first meet but decides to give the kid a chance. In that moment when the rat decides to go back, I noticed something so subtle that it would have been easy to miss. You can actually see his heart pounding through his fur at the very same accelerated pace that a rodent’s heart would beat. You might think that this sort of detail would not matter in the end, but it exemplifies the filmmakers’ passions to get every detail right.

But even Pixar’s successes are not solely a product of amazing attention to detail; they also involve incredibly intelligent storytelling. Bird is not content to confine his theme of never judging a book by its cover to just Remy and Linguini; all the main character’s are included in this lesson. The rats are filled with love for their fellow colony members. Collette is not simply some girl who gained favoritism from her fierce nature, nor is she the perfect chef. Even the food critic is discovered to have a heart.

The only drawback might be the lack of action; there’s a lot of talking in this film. But it is nice to see writing and direction that doesn’t depend on action and laughter to carry the piece. Again, this is where the film seems to be a throwback to a simpler time in filmmaking. There doesn’t seem to be any urgency on Bird’s part to force thrilling situations and humor upon the audience, and yet my five-year old sat there just as enthralled as he was watching “Night at the Museum”. With this film, he gets a much more rewarding experience.

Buy it: Pixar movies

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