After fidgeting through "family films" that rely heavily on poop jokes and pop-culture references but not at all on character development or clever dialogue, Ratatouille proved to be a delight, an oasis in the middle of summer-movie mediocrity. It's not a sequel or a remake, it's got a polysyllabic title ... and it's a Pixar film written and directed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles). The only real drawback to Ratatouille as family fare is that it might actually entertain adults better than children, although the kids at the screening I attended generally seemed quiet and interested.
The plot itself offers few twists, other than the surprise of containing a number of irresistible characters. Remy (Patton Oswalt) the rat -- yeah, I thought the main character's name would be the title, too -- doesn't want to live the life his family advocates, stealing garbage and stuffing themselves with anything remotely resembling nourishment. He wants to be a creator rather than a thief, and cook delicious meals to share. He's inspired by Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose book Anyone Can Cook encourages everyone to learn to create and try new things. Remy ends up separated from the rat pack and lost in the sewers of Paris, where he discovers Gusteau's old restaurant, now under the management of the nasty Chef Skinner (Ian Holm), and becomes entangled with the ambitious but clumsy new kitchen boy Linguini (Lou Romano). Remy and Linguini's friendship is the real heart of the movie, although Linguini's attempts at romance with hard-boiled cook Colette (Janeane Garofalo) also keep us interested.
I was on my guard since I'd been disappointed by Pixar's Cars last year, and at first I was a little worried. The first 15 minutes or so of Ratatouille are slow and seem dumbed-down for kids: too much reliance on narration, blatant hints, characters that are a little too broad. After the action shifted to Paris, however, the less successful characters took a backseat to the more genuine relationships and suddenly the movie sucked me into its world entirely. Certain rules tie this world to reality very effectively: Remy can understand Linguini, but Linguini can't decipher Remy's rat-speak. And while Remy is visited by what looks like the ghost of Gusteau, the rat is well aware that this "Gusteau" is a figment of his imagination ... and does not know anything that Remy wouldn't know himself. Ratatouille does promote some messages at a level that kids can understand -- not just that anyone can cook, but that anyone can create, and should try to do so -- but delivered so pleasantly that it's difficult to object. Probably someone will find a metaphor in the story of a rat who tries to fit into a human world, even though humans automatically revile him.
My husband called Ratatouille the most beautiful CGI-animated film he's ever seen, and I have to agree. The promise shown by the lovely backgrounds in Cars is realized perfectly here. The film is set not in a certain time period, but rather in the iconic storybook Paris that we've seen in countless paintings and live-action movies. You almost expect to see Gene Kelly dancing by the Seine. I've grown used to seeing ugly representations of animals in CGI-animated films, but the rats in this movie look almost sweet by comparison. Stick around and watch the closing credits, which are done in hand-drawn animation style and have a fabulous vintage Parisian look. The soundtrack isn't intrusive -- no Randy Newman here -- but simply adds depth and texture to the setting of the film.
One odd thing about Ratatouille is the inconsistency of accents, although let's face it, Hollywood has been doing this since the beginning of sound films. Since the movie is set in France and nearly all the characters are French, why do only half of them have French accents? Colette has such a bouncy French accent that it's hard to believe it's Janeane Garofalo's voice underneath. The villain of the film, Skinner, has a French accent ... but so does good-chef Gusteau. And yet the rats and Linguini sound positively American. Despite this silly inconsistency, the voice talent is all excellent. The actors and animators have succeeded in creating believable and even compelling characters.
Ratatouille also has a critic as one of its characters -- the formidable Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), whose negative review of Gasteau's may have led to the chef's death. Normally when you see critics in movies, even if they are not specifically film critics, you have to wonder if the filmmaker has some sort of axe to grind (*cough*Lady in the Water*cough*). However, filmmaker Brad Bird's movies have all been well received. When the critic says that he loves food so much that he simply cannot swallow anything he doesn't like, I felt a certain empathy. In fact, writing this review right now, I feel uneasily like that critic -- maybe Bird put him in the movie just to make film critics feel weird. Or maybe I'm just being a bit of an egotist myself.
Even if you don't have kids to bring, go see Ratatouille, and see it in a theater with a nice big well-lit screen so you can enjoy every detail of the animation. Grown-ups may want to see it in the evening so you don't have to deal with a small child incessantly kicking your seat or even pulling your hair, like I encountered, but I was so absorbed by the movie that I didn't mind. Ratatouille is in fact a fine date movie (said the woman who went on a date once to see Finding Nemo). Be prepared to find somewhere to eat afterwards ... and not crummy fast food, either.