Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Brian Dennehy, Janeane Garofalo, Brad Garrett, Ian Holm, Peter O’Toole, Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano
Parental Notes: This is a fantastic film for all ages, provided you don’t have a phobia of rats or kitchen knives.
The hero of “Ratatouille,” the latest offering of Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) and Pixar Animation Studios, is Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat. That may seem like an unlikely choice for the hero of a film for children, but everything about this film is unlikely. It’s set in a three-star restaurant in Paris, half the characters are rodents, the villains are a food critic and a nasty chef, and it’s surprisingly touching without being overly saccharine the way so many kids movies are. Best of all, it’s thoroughly enjoyable even if you happen to be a grownup.
Remy is separated from his rodent family when they are forced to evacuate the farmhouse where they’ve been living. He finds himself in Paris, right next to the restaurant founded by his idol, the late Chef Gusteau. You see, Remy is no ordinary rat. He has a finely honed sense of smell — to the point that his father made him poison-sniffer for the colony — and longs to try cooking for real, not just the experiments he managed to do in the farmhouse kitchen while the little old lady who lived there was asleep.
Most folks find rats revolting, and Pixar have done quite a bit to make the rats in “Ratatouille” as appealing as possible while letting them still look somewhat realistic. They have human-looking eyes rather than the dark spheres of wild rats, and their noses are a bit cartoonish, as are their paws. Plus, once we get to know Remy a little it’s hard to see him as a dirty creature. He walks on his hind legs so he can keep his forepaws clean, after all, and he washes up every time he’s going to handle food.
Remy gets a chance to handle food in a real kitchen when a series of lucky coincidences sets him on the path to becoming a real chef: he winds up teamed with Linguini (Lou Romano), a garbage-boy-turned-cook whose actions Remy controls by pulling on his hair. Ridiculous? Well, yes. But this is, after all, an animated film about a rat’s existential crisis: should he spend his life as a regular rat, eating garbage and hiding in the shadows, or should he follow his dream of being a chef? Perhaps a little ridiculousness is par for the course. Our suspension of disbelief is aided by the utterly hysterical montage in which Remy and Linguini practice cooking with a blindfold over Linguini’s eyes.
Pixar’s computer animation walks the line between realism and cartoonishness with deftness. It’s just real enough to look phenomenal without crossing the line into creepy unnaturalness (“Polar Express,” I’m looking at you). The detail work is astonishing, the water and fur design is superb, and the character design of the rats and humans alike is very well-done. Even the motion, which is vital to a piece driven by physical humor and quick physical action, is top-notch.
Linguini and Remy’s collaboration is a huge success, and soon the food critic Anton Ego (a sepulchral Peter O’Toole) is on the warpath. He wrote off Gusteau’s restaurant some time ago, and is enraged to hear it being praised. There are complications, of course, and by the end of the film so much has happened that it’s really rather astonishing to look back on. It feels almost a bit cramped, like a suitcase with one too many t shirts in it. However, Bird is a good enough storyteller that it all is clear and makes sense, and doesn’t loose its momentum. Everything is tied up neatly, of course, but the ending is not nearly as sugary-sweet as I was expecting.
“Ratatouille” is a thoroughly enjoyable film for children and adults alike, and may just encourage a few youngsters to look at cooking in a new way.