“Ratatouille” is the story of an improbably evolved rat named Remy (voiced by diminutive stand-up comic Patton Oswalt) who longs to elevate his culinary tastes above the usual rodent fare. As a young country pest, he watches legendary Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) on TV and takes to heart his remarks that “anyone can cook.” Remy resolves to become a big city chef, a plan frowned upon by his father Django (Brian Dennehy) and misunderstood by his brother Emile (Peter Sohn). Luckily(?), his decision to set out on his own is made easy when he and his rat brethren are unceremoniously evicted from their farmhouse.
Separated from his cohorts, Remy ends up in Paris and, at the urging of Gusteau’s ghost, explores the town. He finds himself at Gusteau’s own restaurant, now run by the conniving Chef Skinner (Ian Holm), who – among other things – is using Gusteau’s name to hawk frozen corn dogs. Goaded by his non-corporeal pal, Remy sneaks into the kitchen and spices up the soup. He’s caught by Skinner, who instructs the new garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), to get rid of him. Linguini has delusions of chef-dom however, and in one of those “Three’s Company”-style coincidences, Remy’s seemingly inevitable fate is delayed when the soup is a hit and Linguini gets credit for it. Rat and man hit upon a cunning plan that allows Remy to cook while making Linguini out to look like the brilliant new wunderkind.
“Ratatouille” is Brad Bird’s first movie since “The Incredibles,” and his influence is welcome after Pixar’s last effort (the Larry the Cable Guy-infected “Cars”). Bird writes animated movies with characters that are attractive to kids, but with a healthy amount of grown-up humor for all the parents dragged along. That said, I’m not certain that Pixar’s latest is going to be that appealing to the younger set, outside of the initial draw of being the latest cartoon movie in wide release. Sure, you’ve got a bunch of cute, talking rodentia, on the other hand, the bulk of the action takes place in a kitchen and the central themes (follow your dreams, believe in yourself, avoid tainted cheese) are couched in cooking jargon, which may fly over kids’ heads.
What likely won’t get past the legions of children who watch this movie, and one of the film’s regrettable side effects, will be the message that rats are cuddly and intelligent and not, in fact, vermin to be exterminated. Assigning human motives and personalities to animals is a staple of animated movies, and seems mostly harmless when you stick with woodland/savannah creatures (“Bambi,” “The Lion King”), or fish (“Finding Nemo”), or even common insects (“A Bug’s Life”), but rats? I wish Pixar luck in the inevitable lawsuit they’ll be slapped with when some little girl in Philadelphia tries to pet one of Remy’s “cousins” in an alley behind Geno’s.
Praising the animation in a Pixar movie is about as original as calling Brett Ratner a hack, so it goes without saying that “Ratatouille” is wondrous to behold. The streets and alleys of Paris are as perfectly realized as the ocean in “Nemo,” and the characters’ comic timing is dead on. Pixar has never lacked for technical sophistication, but Bird brings real soul to his creations, something the pretty but vacuous “Cars” sorely lacked.
And perhaps this is the reason Bird decides to go all M. Night Shyamalan on us near the end, when Remy and Linguini have to impress the fearsome food critic, Anton Ego (a fantastic Peter O’Toole). Ego has an epiphany at the film’s climax, and laments his choice of careers, since critics never take any risks like creative people do.
Uh, okay Brad. I can understand critically reviled movie folk like Shymalan and Rob Schneider lashing out at us, but to the best of my recollection, all of Bird’s movies have been followed by a veritable bukkake party of critical praise. Doubtless Bird would say Ego’s turnaround is a way to get people to stop being so negative and enjoy the good things in life, but the subtext is pretty obvious (his name is “Ego,” for christ’s sake).
Or I could just be imagining things.
In any event, “Ratatouille” is stunningly animated, cleverly scripted, and genuinely humorous. Bird and Pixar have another winner on their hands.