Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/04/07 17:47:20

"Très Magnifique."
5 stars (Awesome)

But of course “Ratatouille” is a great movie. We know this before we even walk into the theater, because “Ratatouille” is from Pixar, the animation studio that cannot be bothered with making a merely good movie. From “Toy Story” to the critically underappreciated “Cars,” and all the many terrific short films along the way, Pixar remains after all these years the indestructible gold standard in motion pictures, animated or otherwise.

For “Ratatouille,” Pixar calls back into action writer/director Brad Bird, whose “The Incredibles” remains one of the best superhero movies in recent memory (and whose “The Iron Giant,” made for Warner Bros., remains one of the best animated films ever created). What makes Bird such a success is how he builds his stories from the ground up - he seems intent on avoiding family-movie cliché at every turn.

Even the premise itself seems too inventive and unfamiliar compared to most animated efforts these days; other studios surely would have balked at such a concept, or, at lease, mangled it during production. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat born with a heightened sense of smell and taste. As such, he cannot bring himself to eat the garbage his family scarfs down, instead longing for gourmet options. In other words, this rat is a foodie.

As a foodie, he’s eager to explain his dining sensations, and here the film makes a peculiar, wonderful choice: it visualizes taste. As Remy experiments with the cheeses and fruits he is able to obtain, we see swirls of color, punctuated with jazzy riffs on the soundtrack (the score is by Michael Giacchino, one of the finest young composers around; his work here is simply amazing). What other cartoon would dare stop in its tracks to revel in the joys of the senses?

Ah, but “Ratatouille” is, of course, not just another cartoon. It is a film brave enough to move at a slower pace; even its later moments of comical chaos have something of a refreshing patience to them. This is the third Pixar feature in a row with a running time that bumps rather close against the two hour mark, and how brave of them to realize that children do not need digest adventures thrown at them at the cost of character and story. Kids will indeed sit still for that long if the story’s right - and of course the story is right.

Of course, to dismiss “Ratatouille” (or any other Pixar title) as just some kids’ movie would be to miss the point completely. One of the keys to the studio’s success is that it makes its cartoons without an age limit. Like classic Looney Tunes, Pixar’s movies connect with viewers young and old alike. After all, a good story is ageless.

And back to that story. Remy is separated from his family as they flee a country farmhouse; through the guidance of the spirit of the late, great chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) - less a ghost and more a figment of Remy’s imagination, the film clarifies - the rat winds up at Gusteau’s, a once-great Parisian restaurant. It is here he encounters Linguini (Lou Romano), a lowly “garbage boy.” For reasons to wonderfully absurd to detail here, the two become partners in the kitchen.

What follows is a battle over Gusteau’s will, a potential romance with a feisty chef (Janeane Garofolo), the return of Remy’s mooching family, and - oh my! - the dangerous presence of the famous critic Anton Ego (a perfectly cast Peter O’Toole), whose sour disposition, villainous looks, dreary self-importance, and extreme distaste for anything remotely popular surely indicates he was modeled after our own Peter Sobczynski.

The Anton Ego character (what a name!) is a perfect example of how Pixar in general and Bird in specific do things right. When we first meet Ego, we are convinced he will be just another caricature. Even as the movie starts to pile on such wonderful exaggerations (Ego resides in the dreariest office imaginable and insists Gusteau’s fell from grace purely because he once wrote that it should), it’s squarely in the realm of character simplicity. What the film is doing, however, is hiding its trump card: not only does the screenplay eventually make the character something so much more, but it lets him receive the film’s most emotionally resonant moment, followed by his delivery of the film’s most exquisite monologue. In another film at another studio, Ego would just be a generic villain. At Pixar, with Bird, he tosses aside such simplicity and grows into a magnificent, endlessly watchable character in a movie filled with them.

This is because “Ratatouille” has heart. Its jokes (all of them brilliant), its conflict (all of it rousing), its every move springs from this simple fact: “Ratatouille” has heart. It is not enough to be technically sharp (oh, how the animation thrills with every frame); for this to be a Pixar movie, we must have a story that’s solid right down to the core. “Ratatouille” is brilliant in every conceivable way.

But you already knew that, because you already saw the Pixar logo.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.