Remy is a French rat (voiced by comedic roman candle Patton Oswalt) with a soft spot for gourmet food preparation. When he finds himself alone in Paris, Remy hides near the kitchen of Gusteau's, a world-famous restaurant on its last legs under the wicked head chef, Skinner (Ian Holm). Working in the kitchen is Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy, hopeless aspiring chef. When Linguini finds he can communicate with Remy, the two team up to turn Gusteau's fortunes around, raising the curiosity of co-worker Colette (Janeane Garofalo) and the ire of Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a powerful food critic who long ago lost his appreciation for the culinary arts.
"Ratatouille" marks the return of animation legend Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant") to the Pixar fold. Three years ago, Bird fashioned a gem called "The Incredibles," a film that not only upped the geek cred of Pixar, but featured very little in the way of cute and cuddly. "Incredibles" restored a lot of faith in Pixar for me, which was promptly washed away with the anemic artistic softball entitled "Cars." Thankfully, "Ratatouille" is another step forward for both parties.
Set in a romanticized, glittering Paris, the film is a design triumph, inhaling the vapors of ageless Parisian sights and sounds, while basking in the bright light of cuisine at its most luxurious and intense. The idea of placing a rat in the middle of all this is a stroke of genius, allowing a wide berth for slapstick and assorted food-based hijinks that tear the sanctity off fine dining.
Bird is after a farcical ambiance with "Ratatouille," putting the dynamic animation through punishing paces as the camera follows Remy scurrying around kitchen floors and sewers avoiding danger or trying to hustle up his own special menu with scraps of this and that. When it wants to be, "Ratatouille" is high-flying entertainment, toying with a comedic speed not seen since the Harold Lloyd days, while also preserving the trademarked Pixar experience for adults by trailing the social and emotional eccentricities of the adult characters.
My only objection is how long this experience should rightfully last. At 110 minutes, "Ratatouille" is too obese for the agenda it lays out. Any hope for a snappy comedy is ruined by the length and Bird has only halfway realized the sections of the story that don't directly pertain to Remy and Linguini. There's a brilliant 75-minute film here, and truthfully, I could watch the cooking scenes with Remy all day. But Pixar being Pixar, simplicity just isn't in the cards here.
The studio has an incredible track record at the box office, but one that's weighed down with leaden films that abuse the privilege of contrivance to a point of boredom. It was around the time where Linguini and Colette were starting to embark on a flirty relationship that I felt the picture was heading the wrong direction and wasting perfectly good screen time. Even worse is the creation of the food critic, who had every opportunity to become a classic Disney foil. Instead, Bird looks to dish some sass back to the critical community. It's not nearly as ridiculous and petty as last summer's "Lady in the Water," but Bird assigns a speech at the end of the film to Ego concerning the role of a critic in the world that reeks of needless grandstanding.
Hey, at one point this was about a rat, right?
If I sound too down on "Ratatouille," chalk that up to a sense of disappointment that shadows the entire picture like a storm cloud. There's so much to embrace about this sharply entertaining Pixar production, and lord knows Bird is an original who deserves as many directorial gigs as money will allow. Yet, walking out of the film, I felt bludgeoned and fatigued by a creation that was so eager to please. It's a strange reaction to have, but not unwarranted. "Ratatouille" is too much of a good thing, and, while it will certainly delight many, it fumbles the critical impression of timelessness that it should rightfully hold.