One of my favorite animated movies of all time is The Iron Giant, which beautifully captures the time period in which it is set while telling a timeless story of friendship. This was my first formal introduction to director Brad Bird, who had cut his animation teeth by helping to create The Simpsons half-hour show from the shorts that originally appeared in The Tracey Ullman Show. He also directed the ridiculously funny episode of Amazing Stories called “The Family Dog.” I had seen “The Family Dog” a number of times and appreciate it a great deal, but it was only recently that I realized that Bird was associated it.
You can probably imagine how thrilled I was with The Incredibles, another Brad Bird animated film. Once again, it seamlessly meshes into the time period into which it is set while telling a delightful story about superheroes(!) that remains true its genre roots. Throw in some family-friendly morality lessons and state-of-the-art CGI animation and the result is a film that is likely to remain a benchmark for animated movies for a long time to come.
So expectations were huge when Mrs. Speculator and I walked into the theatre to see the latest Brad Bird animation, Ratatouille. Early previews of the film looked a little discouraging…a rat who wants to be a French chef? Clearly the animation would be spectacular, but what kind of story can be told about a rodent with delusions of culinary greatness? Early reviews came back very positive, so we girded up for a Fourth of July matinee.
And wow, does Ratatouille deliver on its potential. Remy has a discerning palate, so discerning that he recognizes that he and his family eat garbage and he wants something better. As he tries to pilfer food from a cottage kitchen, he discovers the TV show of the great five-star French chef, Auguste Gusteau, whose motto (and title of his best-selling cookbook) is “anyone can cook.” But making instead of taking is not the way of rats, so he is emotionally separated from his rat family, who just do not understand him. When that separation becomes physical, Remy finds himself inside the kitchen of Gusteau’s signature restaurant.
What follows is a story with many issues—responsibility to family, responsibility to those to whom you have given your word, and the definition of friendship—set against the animated beauty of Paris and the high-stakes world of haute cuisine. Remy teams up with Alfredo Linguini, a garbage boy at the restaurant to begin creating dishes that delight customers while infuriating the restaurant’s caretaker chef and the critic who delighted in bringing Gusteau down.
The humor in Ratatouille lies in many different levels, from farcical slapstick that you would expect around a kitchen to more adult thoughtful humor. And therein lies the rub, if there is any for this movie—I don’t think it’s a great movie for young kids. A lot of the film is development you would expect in “adult fare” rather than non-stop action and humor. Some of the children in the theatre were bored by some longer stretches of talking in order to set up future actions. I can understand that, given the short attention span of kids from four to six or seven. But those same children were giddy when the action ramped up, so the movie can work on that level. As for the adults in the audience, well…it satisfies on just about every level.
The characters have the completeness we’ve come to expect from Pixar movies, and especially Brad Bird movies. When Colette introduces all the kitchen-workers to Linguini, small nuggets of their background are revealed that you’ll want to be explored much further. Remy and Linguini are especially well-rounded out, and the few moments of exposition that Colette is given reveal some depths to the character that small children may not appreciate so much.
And the animation is just amazing. On the one hand, it’s a compliment to Pixar when you can say that you don’t notice the animation—the story is so engrossing that you don’t notice how hair moves or light plays on surfaces. But on the other, Pixar is unafraid to pull out the stops to make you notice either. At the simplest level, of course there are differences between a dry rat and a wet rat. We’ve come to expect that Pixar will handle that deftly. But the beautiful backgrounds of Paris are literally breathtaking and the action scenes are masterpieces. Whether it’s Remy awash in a flooded storm drain or escaping capture in the kitchen, it’s all perfectly gorgeous.
And the Pixar guys also know their roots. There are moments that throw back to the classic Warner Brothers’ Merry Melodies cartoons. If I mention a herd (what is the gollective term for rats anyway?) of rats scurrying through the kitchen, the first response might be disgust. But if you hearken back to the old cartoons where packs of animals performed human tasks with delightful coordination and ingenuity, that’s what you get here. And the few scenes of a rat-sized and rat-styled restaurant are wonderfully handled as well.
I’m torn regarding whether this is the best Pixar picture ever, but because I can include it in the same breath with Toy Story and the rest, you should know that this is a fine fine movie indeed. Anyone may be able to cook, but not just anyone can make such high-quality animated fun.