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By Brad Cook | November 6, 2007

I used to divide Pixar’s pantheon of movies into two categories: great and good. The former contains the two “Toy Story” movies, “The Incredibles,” and “Finding Nemo.” Everything else falls in the latter category. They’ve never made a bad movie, and that streak continues with “Ratatouille,” but I’m forced to put this one in a middle area between good and great. Call it the “good but with a few elements that almost make it great, but not quite” category.

The film tells the story of Remy, a rat who has a natural gift for cooking. When his rat colony is forced to flee the home where they’ve been living in the attic, Remy is separated from his family. He winds up in Paris, and soon he finds Gusteau’s, a famous restaurant owned by a great chef who recently died. Remy is a fan of Gusteau and his book, “Anyone Can Cook,” so he naturally heads to the restaurant’s skylights, where he watches the action in the kitchen below.

Meanwhile, a scrawny kid named Linguini shows up at Gusteau’s, promised a job through his now-deceased mother’s connection to the head chef, Skinner. Remy watches with horror as Linguini, put to work as a garbage boy, knocks over a soup pot and tries to fix the accident by adding random things to the concoction. Of course, Remy winds up falling into the kitchen through the open skylight, and he gets a chance to fix the soup.

When a food critic tastes Remy’s creation, Skinner assumes Linguini did it, since he caught the boy holding a ladle. Then the kitchen staff notices Remy and traps him, and Skinner tells Linguini to dispose of the captured rat. Linguini realizes that Remy must have been responsible for the soup, which Skinner said he better recreate to keep his job, and he frees Remy after discovering he can communicate with the rat. The pair form a partnership that leads them on a whirlwind adventure, evading Skinner’s attempts to uncover the secret while hoping to get the restaurant into the good graces of a notoriously finicky critic named Anton Ego.

“Ratatouille” features some wonderful scenes, including a moving speech by Ego toward the end, but it falls short of great status simply because Linguini isn’t a likable character: He’s self-centered, and he’s always choosing others over Remy. Unfortunately, Remy has to rely on him to succeed with his cooking, leaving me feeling sorry for the rat, rather than the human. In the end, it’s the arrogant Ego who changes the most; it would have been nice to see Linguini come to a revelation beyond “I need a rat to help me pretend to be a great cook.” We don’t even understand why he cares if Gusteau’s becomes a great restaurant once again, since he clearly has no aptitude for cooking, nor much interest in it.

Some people might tie my comments to the movie’s poor showing at the box office, which ranked ahead of only “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story,” but I think that was a result of the fact that most kids aren’t going to connect with cooking as an exciting story choice. I realize that cooking is a stand-in for anything anyone aspires to, but I don’t think kids are going to understand that, either. Like “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” has many moments aimed squarely at adults, but, unfortunately, this country is full of people who think animated movies are for kids only. Maybe someone should show them “Fritz the Cat.”

I also need to knock my customary half star off my rating for this DVD because of its meager supplements. There’s no commentary track, which is a shame because writer/director Brad Bird put together nice one for “The Incredibles” and “The Iron Giant.” However, we do get to hear his thoughts on why the 15 minutes of deleted scenes were cut, and we get some of his insight into moviemaking during the 14-minute “Fine Food and Film: A Conversation with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller.” As Pixar DVDs go, though, this is pretty meager fare. They used to issue two-disc sets packed with materials; I’m not sure what’s changed, aside from Disney’s ownership of Pixar. Maybe that’s the problem: Disney loves to milk a cash cow by putting out a standard release and then doing a special one later, only to pull their nonsense about “putting it back in the vault” after a brief sales run. I have no idea if this is in the works for “Ratatouille.”

Aside from that, we have the very funny five-minute short “Lifted,” which was shown before the movie in theaters, and an 11-minute piece called “Your Friend the Rat,” in which Remy and Emile give us the history of rats over the past several hundred years. “Your Friend the Rat” is a fun bit that uses a variety of animation styles, although it has nothing to do with the making of the film. Astute viewers will notice the name of Teddy Newton in the credits; he did the character design. Newton is the guy who created that “duck under your desk, it’s the bomb” video for “The Iron Giant,” among other things. He’s known for creating kinetic animation full of rapid-fire edits.

Finally, there’s a one-minute Easter egg that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Watch the rat running around the kitchen on the main menu; when he appears in a certain spot, you can click. Pixar has always been fond of Easter eggs on their DVDs, so at least they’ve been able to carry something over into the post-Disney-purchase era.

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