Ratatouille (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Brad Bird may be one of the few animated filmmakers working today who understands what the concept of a "family film" means. It's something that offers material to viewers of all ages and doesn't lose one group by catering too strongly to another. Following The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, Bird has turned his attention to the sewers and kitchens of Paris with Ratatouille. In some ways, it's an odd subject for a big-budget cartoon. Rats don't make for the most cuddly of animated creatures and the movie spends enough time developing plot that younger children may squirm. Nevertheless, while Ratatouille misses the pinnacle achieved by The Incredibles (considered by some to be the best-ever computer animated film), it provides solid entertainment and shows why something like Shrek the Third should be cast aside.

In Ratatouille, Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt) is a culinary wizard of a rat. His senses are so refined that he refuses to eat garbage and is used by others as a "poison detector" since he can tell if something is toxic by sniffing it. His desire, however, is to become a chef, and he gets a chance to achieve his dreams when he meets Linguini (Lou Romano), a janitor at Gusteau's, a famous Paris restaurant. Hiding under Linguini's chef's hat, Remy urges the young man to create dishes of amazing mastery. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, Remy pulls the strings and Linguini takes the credit. Soon, Gusteau's is the talk of the city and Linguini has captured the heart of the woman of his dreams, Colette (Janeane Garofalo). But trouble looms. The chef (Ian Holm) whose position Linguini usurped wants revenge. And powerful food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) has decided to have a meal an Gusteau's; on the night of his arrival, Remy is nowhere to be found.

Flushed Away had no difficulty using rats as main characters, largely because they looked much like human beings with a lot of hair. Ratatouille provides us with rodents that, while not lifelike, are close enough that it could give some phobic viewers a moment's pause. Since this is Disney, the film emphasizes the creatures' "cute" aspects - a round pink nose and wide, innocent eyes - but there's no mistaking what they are. Ultimately, it's a lot easier to think about cuddling up next to a penguin than a rat. This is one instance in which the realism of CGI may not be an asset.

Ratatouille continues the recent trend of A-level animated pictures raising the visual bar. With human beings looking ever more like their real-life counterparts, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the future of computer generated animation may know no boundaries. There's a chase scene during the second half of Ratatouille that takes us through the streets of Paris and onto boats floating on the Seine. This sequence is so exquisite that it's almost impossible to believe it was conceived and realized within a computer. The single noteworthy quality of Shrek the Third was its animation, and Ratatouille has topped it. (Not that we would expect anything less from Pixar.)

Bird has fashioned the movie as a parable about racism and tolerance. The conflict here is between rats and humans, and the breakthrough comes when members of each species learn a little about those of the other. Then there's the Cyrano de Bergerac angle, which will go over the heads of children (and perhaps some older audience members). While there are no song-and-dance numbers to enrapture kids, there are plenty of action sequences and a majority of the comedy is universal enough to tickle the funny bones of viewers of all ages.

For the most part, the vocal casting relies on actors with generic voices or those who can hide their natural intonations. The exception is Peter O'Toole, who gives ominous depth to the character of Anton Ego (although the visual representation of the critic looks like Christopher Lee as filtered through Tim Burton). This isn't O'Toole's first role in an animated movie, but it may be his most memorable. He also delivers an interesting monologue about critics that could be seen as applying to more than those who review restaurants.

At nearly two hours in length, Ratatouille demands a longer attention span than most animated movies. (Plus, it's fronted by a five-minute short, Gary Rydstrom's delightful "Lifted.") It rewards those with patience, regardless of age. The movie wisely saves its best and most impressive set pieces for the second half, whether they're the aforementioned chase or the sight of hundreds of rats invading a restaurant kitchen. And, while Ratatouille isn't specifically about the love of food, that's another ingredient Bird has stirred into the pot.

Coupled with Surf's Up, Ratatouille offers movie-goers a recent rarity: back-to-back quality animated family films. It has been years since we have seen something similar, and the effectiveness of this movie helps to wash away some of the bad aftertaste left by Shrek the Third. For parents looking to spend time in a theater with their kids or adults who want something lighter and less testosterone-oriented than the usual summer fare, Ratatouille offers a savory main course.

Ratatouille (United States, 2007)

Director: Brad Bird
Cast: (voices) Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O'Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo
Screenplay: Brad Bird
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-29
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1