While the rest of the computer animation studios rush around to see who can copy each other the quickest, Pixar always manages to forge ahead with something new, creating their own stories out of whole cloth while continually pushing forward the technology to elevate the art of digital cartooning. I hesitate to call any of the other animation houses "competition," as they are so far out of this league, it's embarrassing. How long can they keep recycling the same couple of ideas before we end up with what is surely the nadir of commercial self-cannibalization, a movie where penguins act out fairy tales? Even a Pixar misfire like last year's Cars still manages to be more original than anything else currently being peddled in the multiplexes.
Thankfully, Ratatouille proves that Cars was just a momentary lapse of reason, and Pixar is still top of the heap. If there is a superstar director poised to rise above the rather large Pixar team, it's Brad Bird, who previously broke the company mold with The Incredibles and before that made one of the last great classics of hand-drawn animation, The Iron Giant. Bird has incredible storytelling instincts. He's the sort of director who can do it all--comedy, drama, action, fantasy--and his films usually reflect that. They are funny, heartwarming, exciting, and inventive. Ratatouille continues his incredible streak.
Remy (voiced by the super awesome comedian Patton Oswalt) is a rat with a highly developed sense of smell. He can detect a sprinkle of oregano from a mile away, and as such, he isn't satisfied with the kind of rancid confections that his brother Emile (animator Peter Sohn) and the rest of their rat colony live on. This snobbery baffles the boys' father, Django (Brian Dennehy), who cautions his sons about the perils of breaking from the pack and straying too far into the human world.
It's just such a wandering that changes Remy's life, however. Infatuated with the popular, populist chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), Remy repeatedly sneaks into the kitchen of the house the rats have nested in to read the Gusteau cookbook and watch his show on TV. On the same day Remy learns that his hero has died, the owner of the house discovers her rodent infestation and the colony is forced to make a run for it. Remy is separated from the rest, and a harrowing sewer ride takes him from the limited palate of the French countryside to the gourmet streets of Paris. Lead by his own imaginary guardian angel, the deceased Gusteau himself, Remy finds the man's famous restaurant. There, he meets the young garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), whom he then helps become a great chef, wresting the struggling restaurant from the control of the greedy Skinner (Ian Holm) and the bitter scorn of food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole).
Writing a summary of what happens in Ratatouille is a difficult task. There is so much that goes on in this wonderful movie, I have to pick and choose what I want to give away and what I want to leave for my readers to be surprised by. There's also just so much great stuff I want to talk about, how do I even begin to structure telling it all to you? As a comedy, Ratatouille is full of hilarious jokes. As a drama, we get stories of personal struggle and self-definition, issues between fathers and sons, and even a romance, as the shy and timid Linguini falls for the much more aggressive female chef Colette. Just bringing up Colette leads me to the fact that she is voiced by Janeane Garofalo, and how happy I was that Bird got such great performances from his superstar voice actors, I didn't even realize that half of them, including Janeane, were part of the movie. I'm so tired of these cartoons where the voice actor's personality overshadows the actual character, making you constantly aware of whom you are listening to. Reading the cast list at the end of the film, I was amazed to discover names like Peter O'Toole and Will Arnett. They disappeared completely behind their drawn alter egos--which is just as it should be.
Along a similar vein, I have a hard time getting excited by most action films these days. While movies like Casino Royale are stunning from a technical standpoint, the exacting choreography and use of special effects sucks all of the thrills right out of them. Old school stunt work still makes audiences gasp because there is a sense of chaos, a belief that someone is really making that dangerous leap and could probably get hurt. Not so when Daniel Craig runs across a construction crane that doesn't look like it would move in an earthquake. Yet, Bird and his amazing storyboard crew craft several sequences for Ratatouille that had me squirming in my seat wondering if Remy could get out of the scrape he'd gotten himself in. The cameras twist and turn, furniture comes crashing down, and there is a startlingly real sense of peril. Would he drown in the sewer? Would he get out of the kitchen alive? I needed to grow some new fingers, because I'd bitten off all my nails waiting to find out.
I could go on and on. I haven't even touched on the beauty of the character designs and the animation wizardry that the Pixar team has pulled off here. It's so wonderful to see a romantic vision of Paris again. The city hasn't looked this good since William Holden chased Audrey Hepburn across town to the Eiffel Tower. But are any of these added points of praise necessary? If I haven't convinced you as of yet that Ratatouille is about a million flavors of awesome, I am not sure what more you need. This outlandish story of a rat who dreams of being a chef has everything anyone could require in a motion picture and then some. The actual dish ratatouille may be a peasant's dinner made from cheap ingredients, but the movie is nothing of the kind. It's a five-star meal made from the best possible produce. Go and gobble up every frame.
Oh, and of course, as with all the other Pixar films, this one opens with a short subject put together by the studio. "Lifted" is a cute five-minute piece directed by Gary Rydstrom that was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. It involves a butter-fingered alien and a training exercise in abduction. Make sure you get to the theatre on time, because it's very, very funny.