Pixar has become the film worlds equivalent of Warp and Creation Records, a bona fide stamp of quality that has so far managed to marry flawless animation and pop culture to produce hit after hit at the box-office.
By combining fast-moving action with enough film references and subtle jokes for the baby boomer demographic, theyve managed to pull animation kicking and screaming out of its self-imposed sojourn in the left-field ghetto, and back into the bosom of the mainstream. Uncle Walt, one feels, would have approved.
Yet theres been something missing recently. While deserving of their good reviews, Pixars last couple of films – Cars and The Incredibles – seemed to have lost a little of the indefinable magic that dripped from every airbrushed pore of Toy Story. That film was heralded in the main for its technical achievements and superior voice acting, but at heart was, well, a film withheart. Could they ever manage to recreate the same thrill that accompanied their early releases again?
The initial portents for Ratatouille were, to put it bluntly, not good. The films original director Jan Pinkava seceded control to Brad Bird roughly half way through development, and with an American suddenly at the helm of a very European film, it looked like Pixar were about to serve up their audiences something that would make Freedom Fries seem positively refined in comparison. Ratatouille is the story of Remy (voiced by Patten Oswalt), a rat who longs to exchange his nightly dish of garbage au table for the gastronomic delights that surround him in his native France.
His efforts to convert his brethren result in his simultaneous promotion/ demotion to chief poison-detector for his ratty clan (including his over-bearing father, voiced to perfection by a gruff Brian Dennehy). But Remy just cant keep away from the kitchen of the local farm, and after one particularly daring mission to worship at the cookbook of master chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett) he ends up alone and hungry on the streets of Paris, with only his copy of Gusteaus masterpiece Anyone Can Cook! for company. Gusteau may be dead, but he pops up every so often to offer Remy advice, managing to side-step any difficult questions with a cry of I dont know, Im just a figment of your imagination.
Of course Remy cant help but chance a look into Gusteaus famous restaurant, and his arrival just happens to coincide with the first day of the new plongeur, a hapless, untalented schmuck called Linguini (Lou Romano). Man and rat quickly enter into an uneasy partnership that recalls Cyrano De Bergerac; hidden under Linguinis chefs hat, Remy can control him by using his hair as a kid of joystick a First-Person-Cooker, if you will. With Remys fine skills, Linguinis star begins to rise in the kitchen, confounding the diminutive chef Skinner (Ian Holm, whose finely-tuned descent into madness reminds one of Herbert Loms Dreyfus from the Pink Panther films) and attracting the kitchens only female presence, Colette (Janeane Garofalo). Of course, a restaurants only as good as its column inches, and trouble looms in the shape of Anton Ego (Peter OToole), a kind of Kenneth Tynan of the kitchen. With Skinner growing ever-more suspicious of Linguinis skills, Remy has to make a decision: career, or return to the easy life with his reunited family?
It is to the films credit that, while a happy ending is never in doubt, its not the one that you were expecting, and in the end there is redemption of sorts for almost all the films initially unappealing characters, with one in particular having a Proustian moment upon tasting the eponymous dish of the films title. Its worth saying something about the visual feast that the film presents here: never before will you have openly salivated to animated food, and watched with growing anticipation as the characters make magic with their knives and saucepans.
It is in the kitchen scenes that the film dazzles with visual invention: Remy is followed, steadicam-like, as he jumps from hiding-place to hiding place in his first visit to the kitchen; Linguini pirouettes and pratfalls from counter to sink as Remy desperately learns to control his limbs; and, in the films most stunning scene, a multitude of rats descend in a display that simultaneously acknowledges and surpasses The Sorcerers Apprentice sequence in Fantasia.
We must also applaud a film that manages to present the French as real, rounded people and not, to quote The Simpsons, cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Remys initial awe-drenched gaze at Pariss illuminated vista echoes that other love letter to a city, Manhattan. And the personal journeys that both Remy and Linguini undertake are far from the usual pat that underlies your average family film: Linguini, in particular manages to undergo a near Dickensian transformation in his acceptance of his eventual fate, while Remy well, youll just have to see the film yourself, and find out. Pixar are to be congratulated for crafting a modern fable that is not just the best animated film youll see this year, but one of the best films, period.