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Ratatouille Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageThis is probably the best movie of 2007; it’s definitely in the top ten of the year. When better CGI-animated films are made, Pixar will make them, and did so again with “Ratatouille.” Though somewhat too long with a few too many climaxes, this lively movie is great fun, and the best love letter to great cooking since at least “The Big Night” and maybe even “Babette’s Feast.” Here, the chef is a rat (rendered relatively realistically for an animated film); his smallness inability to speak human languages limit him—but these are challenges to overcome. Which leads to this being the best story of a rodent and a human friend since Disney’s “Ben and Me,” lo these many years ago. (That short was released in 1953.) This time out, the writer-director is the immensely talented Brad Bird, who also made “The Iron Giant” (for Warners) and Pixar’s “The Incredibles.”

The title refers to a robust vegetable stew, the food of French peasants, not the main character, who’s called Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt). He’s a country rat with ambitions; he has a great sense of smell, and therefore taste, and has become crazy to learn how to cook. He also can read—but assures his skeptical brother Emile (Peter Sohn) that he doesn’t read “excessively.” They’re among a passle of rats, led by their stout father Django (Brian Dennehy), who live on a farm. His father uses Remy’s amazing talent of super-smell to check food for poison. Nothing much else. He keeps insisting that Remy accept his status as a rat.

The old lady who lives on the farm likes to cook herself, and keeps in her kitchen “Anyone Can Cook,” a cookbook by celebrated Parisian chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett) who, alas, recently died. Remy, too, has come to love the book, and likes to try out recipes, sometimes with Emile’s unsure help, but occasionally they end disastrously.
One such results in the old lady suddenly learning her walls are full of rats, so she hauls out a shotgun and blasts away. The rats scurry off into the nearby sewer—their motions are often very rat-like—but Remy is separated from the rest. He drifts into an area unknown to him, and has some scary moments scampering around, looking for shelter. (He runs on all fours, but usually stands on his hind legs; as he tells Emile, he doesn’t want to have to keep washing his forepaws.) He’s advised by a floating spirit of Gusteau; he knows it’s just a figment of his imagination—in fact, the spirit tells him that’s all he is—but he still relies on the judgment of this illusory chef.

Especially when he realizes, to his astonishment, that he not only has reached Paris, the city of enchantment, but he’s actually in Gusteau’s, the famous restaurant founded by the late Auguste. However, he knows that he’s regarded as mere vermin, and so flees. As he passes a kettle where new garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano) is surreptitiously trying to cook soup, Remy tastes it and shudders. But he pauses before exiting; he’s a chef, and he just cannot help trying to improve that soup. He scampers around, adding a bit of this, a dash of that.

And the finished soup is delicious. Diminutive Skinner (Ian Holm), the chef who now runs Gusteau’s, is scornful of Linguini, who’s a doofus, but saucier Collete (Janeane Garofalo) points out the customers liked his soup. Okay, so Linguini’s hired—but first he has to get rid of that rat he just captured. The rat, of course, is Remy, who in the nick of time, convinces Linguini that they can communicate. It takes some doing, but Linguini finally realizes the rat is a “little chef” (as he always calls him), and allows Remy to hide under his toque (chef’s hat), where he tugs on Linguini’s hair, guiding him like a puppet.

To Skinner’s astonishment—and dismay—Linguini seems to have suddenly become a great chef. Maybe he can please the palate of domineering restaurant critic Anton Ego (amazingly, Peter O’Toole), known as The Grim Eater. If he gives the reborn Gusteau’s a favorable rating, they’re home free.

But of course, there are other complications in this somewhat too-busy plot. Is Linguini the unacknowledged—and unaware—son of Gusteau? (Who keeps giving Remy advice.) What about Emile, Django and the other country rats? Will Linguini find romance with acerbic Colette? She has a great short speech in which she details her unusual position—a woman in a kitchen full of men. It has been rare for the French to acknowledge that women actually can cook—though, of course, they all loved the dinners maman prepared them at home. Things get complicated, almost jumbled, toward the end, which includes a chase through the streets of Paris—when the movie still has a while to go.

Some of the occasional awkwardness in “Ratatouille” may be because Brad Bird was recruited to rewrite and direct the film after it was already in production under the direction of Jan Pinkava (discreetly credited as an additional director). Bird couldn’t quite tear the whole thing down and start over, but it’s clear his sensibilities enrich the entire movie. His films, so far, have been about outsiders finding their place in the world without compromising their own standards, and that’s true here, too. Remy is a little blue rat, but he’s a great chef who needs to find his place in the crowded world of a restaurant kitchen. The movie is about how he does that.

But as he learns this, the movie is all kinds of other things, too. First, it embraces cooking; the filmmakers consulted with chefs (one stayed two days at the French Laundry) so that everything would seem correct and authentic. How many movies explain what each person in a busy restaurant kitchen does? They were careful to get the cutlery and cookware right, to accurately depict the dishes that the kitchen staff prepares, including Remy’s creative miracles. Even the sounds are right, of scallops being flipped in a sauté pan, of the whisper a rat’s feet make on bricks, of what a big kettle of soup sounds like when it boils.

Like “Babette’s Feast,” “Ratotouille” confidently demonstrates that cooking is art, and chefs work with senses that other arts rarely engage: smell and taste. You can practically whiff the aromas floating through the kitchen. Near the end, one character takes a bite of—yes—ratatouille, and there occurs one of the most brilliant cuts since the bone turned into a spaceship in “2001.” The diner tastes the ratatouille—and instantly whisks back in time to when he was a small boy, coming into his mother’s aroma-filled kitchen to eat her wonderful ratatouille. The sense of smell evokes old memories better than any other sense—but how many times have you seen a movie demonstrate that? This one does, and it’s—appropriately--breath-taking, as well as imaginative, eloquent and funny.

In the meantime, in between time, there is a lot of beautifully-timed slapstick, and some tiny, subtle gestures rarely seen in any form of animation. When he’s first trying to communicate with Linguine, Remy uses a repertoire of tiny, hesitant nods, even tinier, more hesitant shrugs. It’s astonishingly eloquent, astonishingly funny.

Though the film is rated G, there are a few moments that might set kids back a bit. When Django reaches Paris, he’s annoyed and concerned to learn his son Remy is actually working WITH a person. He shows him the window of a nearby shop—decorated in the corpses of rats ensnared in the traps the shop sells. It’s just a moment, but it is shocking. (It’s based on a real Parisian shop.) Still, do not keep kids from seeing this film—even though it is primarily for adults. Nonetheless, be prepared for your kids to suddenly express a lot of interest in trying to cook; one of the movie’s main themes is contained in the title of Gusteau’s book: “Anyone Can Cook.” Not everyone can be a chef, of course, but anyone can whomp up something good in the kitchen.

Although there are fewer star names in the voice cast than usual for animation these days, the actors are well chosen. I’m unfamiliar with Patton Oswalt’s work as a comedian and haven’t registered him in his occasional film roles, but his voice has a likeable combination of intelligence, impatience and enthusiasm. Ian Holm, of course, is a well-known and busy character actor who turns up all over the place, including in “The Aviator” and “The Lord of the Rings” (he was Bilbo). I had no idea he could conjure up this much energy and dry wit, but he’s just perfect as the fuming chef, Skinner. (Where did a French chef get such an English name?) Brad Garrett is an unexpected choice for the voice of the late Gusteau, but his work is fine. The real surprise—but of course, it shouldn’t BE a surprise—is Peter O’Toole as The Grim Eater. Elegant, sardonic, brittle and witty, he’s everything you hate in a critic—and yet it’s clear he also loves food, which is WHY he’s a critic. At the end, he has a superb little speech about the value of critics; I’d love to have it engraved on a plaque over my monitor.

Although “Ratatouille” doesn’t make technical advances in CGI, water is brilliantly done here, even better than in the recent “Surf’s Up.” Camera “movements” are sweeping but graceful; we never lose track of what’s going on. Bird also uses LACK of focus—blurriness—to great effect in scene after scene; we’re accustomed to this in live action films, as an accidental byproduct of the differences between lenses, so it makes these animated scenes more “realistic.” Shifting of perspective like this is probably not difficult, once the images are in computer memory, but few other directors try this kind of thing—Bird wants his movies to look almost like they were shot live, other animation directors don’t seem to have the same intent. Bird worked out a clever way to demonstrate that while we hear the rats talk (in English, not French, of course), people in the movie only hear them squeaking. This is dealt with quickly and firmly, then never referred to again.
There are some weaknesses. The end requires a lot of loose threads to be wound up, but it has to do this in a very short time, making the last half hour seem rushed rather than speedy. Also, Linguini is a problem. He doesn’t really change from the beginning to the end, and is always just a standard movie doofus; he may be adorable, but he’s still a doofus at the end. Perhaps through being manipulated by Remy, up there under his toque, he should have learned to cook reasonably well himself. Not a master chef like Remy, of course, but at least an able cook. But nope, he’s still a jerk at the end.

There are two father-and-son stories, but the movie probably only needed one. Django keeps urging Remy to swipe food from the restaurant’s larder, but Remy strongly believes “a chef makes, a thief takes.” Since he DOES believe that so strongly, it’s not convincing when he dejectedly decides maybe, for a rat, his father’s way is best. We know this train will soon be back on the tracks, so this complication is just a momentary impediment, and perhaps should have been removed.

But overall, “Ratatouille” is creative and original; no other animated film, hardly even any live-action movie, has even come close to what this film does with and for food and the art of cooking. It’s expansive—wide screen—and colorful, with the backgrounds beautifully rendered and very Parisian. Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater wanting to, right now, go to a fine Parisian restaurant and be served ratatouille. (Alas, the DVD does not include the recipe, though we see the same dish being made in the live-action featurettes.)

Appropriately for such an outstanding movie, “Ratatouille” has been given outstanding treatment on this Blu-ray. The high definition of this Blu-Ray disc recreates the theatrical experience nearly perfectly (though of course, as a comedy it does benefit from being seen in an appreciative audience). The foggy scenes, the flash and clutter of the kitchen, the dank, damp sewers, the wet cobblestones of the Parisian streets—all these are realized so well you can virtually feel them. All animated films, but especially CGI movies, benefit greatly from being seen in high definition, because (of course) the details are even sharper and clearer, and movies like these are comprised of details, from vast to tiny. You can practically count the hairs on Remy’s blue back, you can see the weave of the fabric in Linguine’s toque, you perceive the crisp hardness of the kitchen’s tile floor. Although there aren’t many technical innovations—at least, I didn’t spot that many—by its sheer proficiency, “Ratatouille” looks five years ahead of any other CGI features. But that’s usual for Pixar, the company that sets the standards the other CGI companies must follow.

The sound of the disc is also rendered perfectly, to the benefit of Michael Giacchino’s very Parisian-style score. There’s also a featurette about Giacchino, made by his 10-year-old son; it’s funny, informative and intelligent. Giacchino also scored many episodes of “Lost” as well as Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles.” Remember his name—he’s on his way up very swiftly.

The disc is also bedecked with outstanding extras. The deleted scenes, which come in two varieties, are especially interesting, since some of them are largely hand-drawn animation, crudely animated and roughly edited. The scenes are interesting but, as usual with such deletions, it’s easy to see why they were removed. The other variety of deleted scenes are hosted by the animators who created them. They each lament the removal of their precious footage, often melodramatically; sometimes the pathos is cranked up, some down booze, one goes berserk, some look suicidal. But it’s all funny, all feigned, and more evidence yet, as if any more were needed, that Pixar again looks like one of the best places to work in the world.

The disc includes a new short, partly CGI, partly 2-D animation, “Your Friend the Rat,” hosted by Remy and Emile. It’s a history of rats and their interaction with humankind; the Black Plague is not overlooked, but the whole thing is funny, nonetheless. Who knew that all rats love Francois Truffaut?

Another featuretted, “Fine Food and Film,” compares Thomas Keller, of the famous northern California restaurant The French Kitchen, with Brad Bird, how they each realize their artistic goals. The comparisons are surprisingly apt.

A section pretentiously called “Cine-Explore” is really a collection of interesting shorts about the making of the movie. We see several shots of Bird meeting with his animation team over the two or so years it took to finish “Ratatouille.” He looks like a tough taskmaster, but he’s also funny. Included are also shorts like “Rats” (animated behavior), Paris (live footage of Pixar workers in the City of Light), “Tiny Rat Cameraman” (how the virtual camera followed Remy through the sewers), “Collette” (a woman in a man’s world—both the character and the woman who animated her), “Behind the Swinging Doors” (kitchens), and others detailing the problems and solutions the filmmaking team faced. One of the most amusing is “My Dad the Composer.” Michael Giacchino’s son Mick was handed a home video camera, and shot his own documentary on the creation of the movie’s score. Another of the better documentaries—all of them are worth watching—is “Old Skool,” about how delighted many animators were with the task of actually DRAWING their animation (for the end credits). Finally, there’s a tribute to Pixar’s Dan Lee, who died during production.

A great movie deserves great treatment on home video; “Ratatouille” is a great movie, and Disney has given it lavish treatment on this DVD. If you’re set up for Blu-Ray, buy this disc—doesn’t matter if you have kids. It wasn’t made for kids. It was made for the rest of us—and for kids.

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