Friday, July 06, 2007

"Ratatouille" offers a feast for all ages


directed and written by Brad Bird
voices of Patton Oswalt, Brad Garrett, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Peter O’Toole, others

I don’t know what’s in the water at Pixar Animation Studios, but whatever it is, this entire country could benefit from having it pumped into their drinking supply. The latest Pixar release, “Ratatouille,” just may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. If this statement makes you wrinkle your nose and query “Really?” in a tone of polite incredulity, that only proves Pixar’s work is not yet done. Until everyone realizes that they deserve to be considered and treated at the same level as today’s leading filmmakers, they’ll just have to go on making the kinds of movies they’ve been making. I, for one, won’t be complaining.

Of course the lion’s share of the credit for “Ratatouille”’s success goes to director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “The Iron Giant”) who’s rapidly establishing a name for himself as the go-to guy for animated movies that appeal to the adult intelligence as much as to the tiny tots. But not by relying on the annoyingly snarky cultural allusiveness that’s become the creative crutch of most (non-Pixar) animated films from “Shrek” onward. No, Bird focuses on such novel things as story, character, and thematic development and comes up with an end product that actually feels like something organically grown, not manufactured with an eye to the lowest common denominator. In the wasteland that is children’s or “family” entertainment today, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

The premise of “Ratatouille” is at once simple in concept and inspired, even singular, in its originality: Remy, one of a colony of French rats, dreams of being a chef. That’s right, a chef. Gifted with an unusually sensitive sense of smell and taste, he finds it impossible to resign himself to a lifetime of scavenging garbage. Instead, as he tells his father, he wants to create. He gets his chance when a series of near-catastrophic events fortuitously wash him up on the doorstep to a Parisian restaurant founded by Remy’s idol, Gusteau, a legendary chef. Remy’s timing couldn’t be better, as the restaurant’s reputation has been slipping into a decline following Gusteau’s death, and the rat’s arrival just happens to coincide with that of a gangly, awkward new scullery boy, Linguine, who can’t cook if his life depended on it but who accidentally discovers that Remy can. Remy and Linguine team up to create sensational dishes that soon become the talk of the town, even as they strive to keep their secret from the watchful eyes of the current chef, the corrupt Skinner, and a sexy but prickly assistant cook, Colette, who piques Linguine’s romantic interest.

There are plot complications, of course, and an eventual resolution, but neither are altogether what you might expect. Bird knows how to subvert the narrative conventions just enough to preserve an element of surprise, but not so much as to detract from the gut satisfaction of seeing wrongs righted and just des(s)erts delivered. Indeed, despite the state-of-the-art animation that Pixar can always be counted on to provide (a softly lit Paris never looked so inviting, and the food looks appetizing enough to eat,) there’s something essentially old-fashioned at the heart of its movies that hearkens back to the best of classic Disney. “Ratatouille” makes fine use of pure physical comedy in a way rarely seen on screen anymore—not farts or falling anvils, but something almost Chaplinesque or Buster Keaton-ish in the sight of Remy maneuvering Linguine around the kitchen of Gusteau’s, limbs splayed and flailing everywhere, narrowly missing disaster after sheer disaster.

The movie also avoids the trap of celebrity casting which plagues so many animated movies today, and which makes me, at least, yearn for the days when voice-actors made their voices fit the character, not the other way around. Remarkably, so it is here: despite a smattering of well-known names (Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Dennehy, and Brad Garrett, among others), you’d be hard pressed to identify them without knowing the casting in advance. The most recognizable is the great Peter O’Toole, who’s simply marvelous, not intrusive, as Anton Ego, a withering death’s head of a food critic.

All this contributes to a feeling of timelessness that stands in especially sharp contrast to the of-the-moment knowingness of “Shrek”’s inferior progeny, which one can feel fairly certain will not age well. “Ratatouille”’s only nod to a contemporary cultural phenomenon—and it’s a fairly subtle one—is a poke at celebrity chefs who use their name to sell products for mass consumption. (Here, it’s frozen dinners, conceived not by the poor dead Gusteau but by his unscrupulous successor, milking the Gusteau name for profit.) Even this is less a commentary on the obsession of today’s consumers with brand names than a variation on one of Bird’s favorite, faintly Ayn Randian themes: that great talent is continually diluted, unappreciated, used, and even abused by society at large, and subsumed to the ignorant and less able.

Which brings me back to Bird and the brilliance of his achievement. In interviews he’s made it clear that his films are targeted at the general audience, not exclusively or even primarily at kids. Some viewers may be concerned, not wholly without reason, that children will come away from “Ratatouille” thinking it’s all right to have rats in the kitchen and that rats are really sympathetic, misunderstood creatures. (Though no one seems to have that problem with the classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and it should be noted that Bird made sure not to gloss over the inherent ick factor of scurrying hordes of rats. Only Remy emerges as a truly cute, fully anthropomorphized rat, and he is, to say the least, not your ordinary rat.) But the fact is that except on the most basic level, this isn’t a movie about rats who can cook. Even children can appreciate that in a broader sense it’s about following your dreams, no matter how improbable or unattainable they may seem. And as they grow older, they’ll realize that it’s really a lot more complicated than that. Despite Gusteau’s famed (and reviled) mantra “Anyone can cook,” what Remy’s story proves—an insight given voice, interestingly enough, by the nasty critic—is not that anyone can do anything just by wanting it, but that talent can spring from anywhere and in anyone.

Adults will also spot a plethora of other themes threaded seamlessly throughout the film, such as the aforementioned struggle between talent and the forces of mediocrity; the age-old conflict between individual aspirations and family expectations; and (dearest to my own heart) the relationship between creator and critic. There’s a lot to chew on in this “Ratatouille,” yet what makes it exceptional is that no matter at what level you’re operating, it coheres into a satisfying whole. That’s a bar all too often unmet by movies generally, animated or otherwise. “Ratatouille” clears it with room to spare.



Blogger Campaspe said...

Ah, you make me want to see this! Pixar animation is always a bit disorienting for me, as I am still used to the old-fashioned kind, but their scripts are so clever. Tell me, do you think 4 years old is too young for it? I would love to take my kids to a matinee or other age-appropriate showing. I think they would particularly dig the Parisian scenes, as they are half-French and have spent a lot of time in Paris.

3:28 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Well, a lot of it might go over a 4-year-old's head (though maybe not a precocious 4-year-old), but the basic plot line would be simple enough for them to follow.
And I do think they'd find the Parisian scenes and cooking scenes appealing. Even if they don't get all that's going on, this is definitely a movie they can grow into.

Just be sure to make them understand that it is NOT ok to have rats in the kitchen. :-)

8:58 PM  

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