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Ratatouille (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 29 June 2007
When better CGI-animated films are made, Pixar will make them, and has done so again with “Ratatouille.” Though it's 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 slight stature as a rodent, and inability to speak in 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 has “Anyone Can Cook,” a cookbook by celebrated Parisian chef Auguste Gustea (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 calamity leads to 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 Gustave; 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 Gustave'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 just 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 ate 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 hero, and he 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, 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. I wish I could see those moments right now.

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. 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 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 any (or many) 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 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 that a lot of loose threads be wound up, but it has to do them 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 has even come close to what this film does with and for food and the art of cooking. Very few live-action films have dealt with kitchens so realistically, and with such attention to detail and to all the senses. 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 and be served ratatouille.

As often the case with Pixar features, the movie is preceded with a clever CGI short. This one is “Lifted;” it's about a sleeping Midwestern farmer and the aliens who seem to be trying to abduct him. But it's really some kind of test; a sardonic-looking green blob-like alien with a cocked eyebrow and a clipboard is testing an eager young space cadet who's trying to learn the purpose of all those identical-looking switches on the vast control board in front of him. The writer-director of this funny, brisk little piece is, surprisingly, Gary Rydstrom-who during his movie career has been faced with control boards very much like this one. Ever since “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Rydstrom has been the main sound go-to guy for Spielberg and Lucas, among others. He shared Oscars with his teams for “Saving Private Ryan,” “Titanic,” “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2.” “Lifted” itself was nominated for an Oscar this past year; it's a treat to see it included with “Ratatouille.”

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