A lot has been written about the drawbacks to Disney/Pixar’s new film, their first since Pixar was acquired by Disney and Pixar boss John Lasseter was put in charge of all Disney animation. Ratatouille’s main character is a rat that yearns to be a chef, the setting is the finest restaurant in Paris and there’s a lot of talk about the art of cooking and food preparation; the sort of things that are likely to go over the heads of Pixar’s typical target audience.
But the fact of the matter is I think that these are some of the things that work in Ratatouille’s favour. It’s also a highly imaginative and colour film that goes for the soft sell and traditional storytelling mechanics over flash-in-the-pan in-joking and slapstick that a lot of other animated films go for now in days.
Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt) is a finicky eater, his sensitive pallet ill-suited for the mass amounts of garbage that constitute a rat’s diet. Remy’s father (Brian Dennehy) just doesn’t understand his son’s preoccupation with all things gourmet and as a result Remy is something of an outsider amongst his brethren vermin. Remy eventually finds himself in the kitchens of Gusteau’s in Paris, the former restaurant of the famed chef that was famous for saying that anyone can cook.
The kitchen of Gustaeau’s is filled with great characters like the Machiavellian Skinner (Ian Holm), Gusteau’s former sous-chef, who has slowly been selling out Gusteau’s good name. Like Remy, a young man named Linguini is new to the kitchen having just started as a “garbage boy”, but Linguini, like Remy desires to be a chef, unfortunately Linguini lacks even a fraction of Remy’s talent. So naturally, as these things go, Remy and Linguini team up to become the most brilliant new chef in Paris.
The key to Ratatouille’s success is its classic method of storytelling: underdog heroes overcoming impossible odds to make their dreams come true. Writer/director Brad Bird has done this before with The Incredibles (which, incidentally, was more like the Fantastic Four than the Fantastic Four) and The Iron Giant, an overlooked gem that combined traditional animation with CG. Bird’s world is utter fantasy, Paris is picture perfect, the rats are more cute than disgusting and wild rodents can be commanded to run a kitchen. But the fantasy completely immerses you into the world on screen, who cares if rats can’t cook, this is fun to watch.
I also continue to admire Pixar’s commitment to serve the characters. I think one of the demerits of Cars was that the voices were too familiar; you knew that behind the pixilated hoods of the characters were the voice boxes of Owen Wilson and Paul Newman. Actors like Holms and Oswalt don’t have that problem, so they disappear effortlessly into their roles, as does the legendary Peter O’Toole as the snide and cruel food critic Anton Ego. Janeane Garofalo, meanwhile, buries her Jersey-drawl to play the driven French chef Colette.
Although the film is perfectly kid friendly, I do feel that the kids aren’t going to get as much out of it as the adults, especially if they’re Food channel friends. There are meditations and discussions about the mechanics and joys of good food and good cooking. And the film doesn’t shy away from the usual fate of rats when they’re found in a kitchen. I sensed that some of the kids were getting antsy as the film wore on became more about Remy’s cooking then him running away from a Granny with a shotgun.
But I enjoyed the show, no matter how many kids had to excuse themselves or sat quietly trying to figure out what the meaning of Chateau Blanc ’61 is. Ratatouille is bright, energetic and smart, without a hint of snideness or self-referential in-joking. This is a movie that reminds us why we love Pixar, and why they are the standard by which all other modern animation studios are measured. Unfortunately though, its lack of flash and level of sophistication will probably relegate it to the side of Pixar’s legacy with A Bug’s Life.