A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 11
2007, G, 116 mins.
Featuring the voices of:
written and directed by Brad Bird / Based on an original story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco and Brad Bird
RATATOUILLE (pronounced "rat-a-too-ee" in its marketing) is a pure, infectious delight and an animated work dripping with boundless ingenuity and limitless imagination. Itís a highly rare thing when one film can inescapably make you grin throughout its running time. I smiled all the way through RATATOUILLE and drank in its whimsical free spirit, joviality, and - most crucially - its sense of originality. This is one of the best of the Pixar animated films, and considering their past roster of work (TOY STORY 1 and 2, FINDING NEMO, MONSTERS INC., CARS, and THE INCREDIBLES) that is no small feat.
The film is also another triumph for Brad Bird, who is quickly emerging as one of the best directors - animated or not - working today. He made one of the most cataclysmically underrated animated movies of recent memory in 1999's THE IRON GIANT, a wonderful 1960's Cold War-era fantasy that all but failed to find an audience in the theatres, but now has a loyal following on DVD. He followed up that success with 2004's THE INCREDIBLES, a wickedly droll and subversive super hero satire about a pudgy, retired costume-clad warrior that tried to live a life of normalcy until evil lurched its nasty head up on the world.
The one thing that Bird has going for him is in his complete command over this material. Far too many animated films seem like soulless kiddie-fodder than only a five-year-old could watch. The wonderfully refreshing aspect to Bird is in how he gives his animated films a level or intelligence, wit, and sophistication that also appeals to adults. Make not mistake about it, RATATOUILLE is still cute and cuddly for the tykes, but the underlining material is smart and savvy without having to resort to cheap, audience friendly, clap-trap theatrics. Void of those pithy and - to some - sanctimonious pop culture references of the SHREK films, RATATOUILLE instead is a adult-friendly family film in the sense that it has real emotional weight, smart dialogue, and engaging characters. The fact that it creates one of the yearís most appealing screen presences in the form of a rat is to its ultimate credit.
The setup of the film could have been horribly mishandled under the wrong directorial hands. Originally conceived by Jon Pinkava, but later taken and fine tuned by Bird and the geniuses at Pixar, RATATOUILLE tells a potentially outlandish story of a sewer rat living in Paris that develops an astute and fine appreciation for cuisine. He grows to love food so much that he fantasizes about being a world famous chef, but his size and status as a rat pretty much makes him off-limits to any kitchen (most health inspectors donít take kindly to rats in kitchen, regardless of their secret dreams and aspirations).
Now, whatís really, really amazing is that Bird is able to work beyond the contrived and ridiculous nature of the story. He is able to craft a tale that works on so many divergent levels. On one hand, itís a sobering - without being too preachy and saccharine - tale of tolerance and understanding (yes, rats with a passion deserve equal treatment). Secondly, itís a fantastic look at how food and oneís sensitive feelings towards it can often inspire their other passions in life. Lastly, it creates a gorgeous and picturesque portrait of Paris that many live-action films fail to muster. Sure, Bird and company take liberties with geography and the city is painstakingly manufactured in the computer, but the essence and spirit of the city is ever-present.
I think that this is why Bird operates on a whole other plane of existence from the crop of current animators. Too many animated features go for cheap, cuddly jokes and pratfalls and silly payoffs. Bird gives his films such a maturity with its subtle adult-oriented material. There is a lot less action - per se - in RATATOUILLE than present in most other animated tales (THE INCREDIBLES included) and it could be argued that this could make young ones a bit more restless in their seats.
However, I think that itís a genuine challenge to make a real "family film" that can appease all audience members. In terms of keenly understanding this genreís broad demographic, Bird is an unequivocally master. He manages to make his film funny, clever, adorable, and delectably gratifying in the way that it manages to be about something more than pretty visuals and adorable little animated creatures that seem destined to be on McDonaldís drink cups. Sure, RATATOUILLE makes sewer rats pleasurably huggable, but he also makes them fairly intriguing as personalities.
There is also a delicate poignancy to the filmís overall storyline. At the story's core itís about two lonely, misunderstood souls trying to occupy a world that misunderstands them. One of these lost souls is Remy, a rat, voiced by Patton Oswalt) who is dead tired of eking out an existence of eating those disgusting table scraps that humans throw out in their garbage. Remy has more exquisite tastes than most rats (as his humorous voice over narration states, "I like good food, ok? And...good food is...hard for a rat to find!"). Remyís father, on the other hand, does not share his sonís taste for good food. "Food is fuel," he lashes out at him at one point, "You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is gonna die. Now shut up and eat your garbage!"
But Remy does not like garbage. He can sense bad dishes from a mile away (in actuality, he has such a sensitive nose that he can tell if food is laced with rat poison, proving himself invaluable to the other rats). Yet, he really wants to ascend beyond being a poison detector; he really, really wants to be a chef. As demonstrated in a funny and tense introductory scene, Remy and his clan go on a food finding mission to an old, shotgun-wielding womanís house in the country. While the others secretly grab their garbage, Remy starts sniffing away at the pot on the stove. Soon, he starts adding to the recipe to make it all is own, that is until the woman spots the rat and starts blasting away. In the melee, Remy is separated from his family, but he emerges in the bright and vibrant city streets of Paris.
Remy does have some companionship in the form of a ghostly spirit of a deceased chef named Gusteau, who wrote a book embodying the notion that "anyone" can cook. Remy takes this literally. Gusteau's restaurant in Paris was once a five-star eatery and, after his death, has now been reduced down a star via a nasty review by one of the cityís most notorious critics, the vile and cold Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole, giving one of his better performances in a long while: "I don't like food, I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow." ). Remy eventually ends up at the dead-chefís restaurant and decides to learn what he can from being there. However, there is an undercurrent of melancholy to Remyís plight. After all, no restaurant in the City of Lights would ever allow someone of his...stature...to be its cook.
That is...until he meets Linguini.
Linguini, like Remy, is kind of down-on-his luck. He works not as a chef, but as a lowly janitor at Gusteauís. He has no cooking skills whatsoever and when Remy sees him botching a soup one night, he flips. Unfortunately for him, Remy is spotted in the kitchen and the head chef (played wonderfully by Ian Holm) wants Linguini to take the captured rat and kill it. Linguini takes the rat outside and discovers the incredible: the rat can understand him (when he asks Remy if he comprehends him, he simply nods his head; rats to the movie viewers speak in English, but to the other humans in the film, their speech is nothing but squeaks and screeches). More importantly, he discovers that Remy is a masterful cook.
Soon, both of them realize that they both can use one another to pull themselves out of their rut. Remy is able to become the chef he has always dreamed of becoming, but through Linguini. Hiding in his chefísí hat, Remy is able to physically control Linguini by tugging on his hair, kind of like a man steering a horse with reins. Soon, Linguini becomes one of the most respected chefs in all of Pairs and eventually takes over the restaurant from the incredibly dismayed head chef.
The head chef, however, knows that itís the rat that gives Linguini his culinary skills, but - of course - everyone thinks heís a nut. Soon, the former head chef plots his revenge and, to make matters worse, Anton Ego plans a a trip to the restaurant to give it a second chance. It goes from bad to worse when Ego arrives and Remy is no where to be found. Linguiniís life gets even more complicated when he starts to forge a romance with Collette (Janeane Garofalo), one of the restaurantís other chefs. She thinks heís a master, but Linguini grows increasingly jittery with the fact that - sooner as opposed to later - heís going have to spill the beans to the love of his live.
On a level of pure, superficial CG animation, RATATOUILLE may be one of the most sumptuous and gorgeous ever created. The rats in the film are an nifty hybrid - they are not humanoid, but not entirely rodent like either - and Bird creates some astonishing sights and small scale action sequences with these little creatures. The human characters themselves are not realistically drawn, which is the right choice considering the novelty of the story. Like THE INCREDIBLES, they are presented a bit more cartoony and lively, which only adds to the spirit of the whole enterprise. I especially liked the design of the head chef, who is small in stature, but big in terms of bombastic emotion. Even characters like Linguini are well realized. He looks like a geeky twenty-something, which again is appropriate considering his character and arc.
Then there is Paris and the food. The city - in animated form - is a lush, romantic, and beautiful vision in every frame and itís incredible how much character and life Bird and his team of animators give to this synthetic city. Bird and his crew spent weeks in Paris and in some of its finest restaurants to get the look of the city - and food - down just right. Even the food - despite its computer artificiality - looks mouth-wateringly delicious. The animators spent months in culinary schools and in five star restaurants to achieve the proper effect. Birdís eye for virtual cinematography also has no bounds. His camera is effortlessly free flowing, oftentimes following Remy through most of the underworkings of the kitchen in one, breathlessly realized shot. There are so many scenes where shot after shot is a marvel of spatial inventiveness and ingenuity. If Martin Scorsese directed a cartoon, then it would look like RATATOUILLE.
Bird also has an tremendous eye for dexterous, physical comedy, as many of the filmís largest laughs are the result of Linguini spiraling out of control because of Remyís handling of him. There are moments where the pratfalls have a comic timing that would have made Keaton and Chaplin proud. The voice performances also greatly assist with this, and Patton Oswalt (sounding a lot like Wallace Shawn mixed with Richard Dreyfuss) is superb as the rat with a vision. The unrecognizable Brad Garrett is very funny as the ghostly Gusteau. Janeane Garofalo brings a feisty intensity to her love interest. Ian Holm makes the head chef a laughably sniveling little worm of a man. And then thereís the great Peter OíToole giving the filmís best voice performance. He provides a monologue late in the film about the role of the critic that is a small little gem.
Perhaps even better is the way Bird is bale to infuse a moral compass in this fantastical storyline. A lesser filmmaker would have hammered home the filmís sentimentality and messages until all the meaning was drawn out of it. Instead, Bird is a bit less in-your-face and subtle. He never smacks you over the head with it; he letís the well-drawn characters and their interplay speak on the lessons of inclusion and acceptance. The film almost has a slight, fleeting sensation of sensitivity towards its emotions and themes and thatís because Bird is too skilled to allow for them to linger laboriously in the forefront. It is his insistence to let the story and parable play out naturally that ultimately makes RATATOUILLE that much more...well...savory.
Permeated with palatial vistas of Paris, an intoxicating love and appreciation of fine cuisine, witty and lovable characters, and a noble message of tolerance that is not force fed, RATATOUILLE is one of the year's most sublime and mesmerizing family entertainments. It lovingly continues Pixarís prominence as the industry leader in animated films and it confidently places Brad Bird on the map as the premiere director working in the genre. While simultaneously delivering jaw-droppingly immaculate CG visuals alongside an intelligent and urbane script, Bird is able to craft a film with an extraordinary level of stylistic panache and emotional heart. I don't engage in wild hyperbole in my reviews, but I can honestly say that I loved every frame of RATATOUILLE, a soon-to-be animated classic that will surely prompt first time viewers to want to see it again and again. In the annals of animated films, this one stands well above most recent ones, and itís a shoe-in for a Best Animated Picture Oscar. With a thematic complexity, hilarious comedy, and a spellbinding aesthetic palette, RATATOUILLE is simply one of 2007's best films.
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
TOY STORY 3 (2010)