Monday, June 18, 2007

Ratatouille

Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Jan Pinkava
Featuring the voices of: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofolo, and Peter O' Toole

Color, 110 minutes
Rated G

Grade: A



Let's pretend for a moment, shall we. Imagine that I work for Pixar, and I have the task of pitching Ratatouille to the studio chiefs. At the risk of sounding like an outtake from The Player, it would probably go something like this: Patrick Suskind's Perfume as envisioned by Chuck Jones. Yeah, that sounds about right, except that Ratatouille may be even better. It's a fantastic film, first frame to last, and it accomplishes a feat that few films in recent years have been able to do: it brings a smile to your face, and keeps it there.

As our story opens, we're introduced to Remy, possibly the cutest animated rodent to ever hit the big screen (imagine a more realistic looking Mickey Mouse, with less guffaw and better taste), voiced impressively by comedian Patton Oswalt. Remy's having a difficult time, he has an incredibly refined palate, and because of this, his family has elected him to the position of poison sniffer. Remy, however, has higher aspirations, and he looks up to his idol, the recently departed chef and best selling author Auguste Gusteau, for guidance. Gusteau is a believer in the philosophy that "anyone can cook," and Remy, ever the idealist, takes this to heart. After he's separated from his family, Remy is on the verge of starvation, and he's beginning to hallucinate. He imagines an itsy bitsy Gusteau, who flies around giving him advice in a Jiminy Cricket sort of way. With Jiminy Gusteau's help, Remy finds himself in a sewer located directly below (where else?), Gusteau's restaurant. He scurries his way up to an open window, and watches in delight. As his attention focuses on the sensory overload attacking him from the kitchen, we, the audience, find ourselves drawn towards a young man by the name of Linguini (Lou Romano). He's a lanky, awkward little guy, who has just been hired to take out the garbage and wash the dishes. As Remy is running rampant through the kitchen, he notices Linguini messing around with a pot of soup that is being prepared. Knowing that Linguini has botched the food's potential for success, Remy, in an astonishing sequence, rushes to the rescue, adding just the right amounts of herbs and spices to fix Linquini's screw up. Linguini notices Remy, and before he can do anything, the soup is served, to a food critic nonetheless. The soup, of course, is a hit, and Linguini gets the credit. He's given a promotion, yet he knows he can't possibly recreate what Remy has done, so he does what anyone in his position would do: he asks the rat for help. Now, anyone who has seen a Disney film can tell you that animals can speak English amongst themselves, as well as being able to understand the English that humans speak, but they can't necessarily be heard by human ears. This presents itself to be a bit of a problem for our two heroes. What ensues from this mess are delightfully inspired scenes of physical comedy in which the two try and figure out a way to work together without exposing Remy to the rest of the kitchen.

The two finally begin to mesh, and their work becomes a sensation. Gusteau's restaurant is having its biggest success since the death of its founder, but behind the scenes, there are complications. Collette, the meat and poultry chef takes a liking to Linguini, and a romance is on the rise. Just when things are starting to work out, Skinner, the head chef, has plans to buy the restaurant and market Gusteau's image on a series of frozen foods. He's skeptic of Linguini's newfound talent, and he becomes hellbent on exposing the truth. The plot thickens, as Linguini becomes even more of a threat when a shocking revelation from the past is unveiled. Remy, having a hard enough time trying to hold Linguini's hand, has his own problems when his family reenters the picture and appropriately begin to give him guff for being so trustworthy of humans. Our two heroes slowly begin to drift apart, and all hope seems to be lost. On the horizon, however, a storm is brewing, and his name is Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole in Eli Cross mode), a nefarious food critic (Cruella de Vil meets Andrew Sarris) who strikes fear in the heart of every chef in Paris. Ego's last visit to the restaurant had resulted in a scathing review that nearly ruined the establishment and most likely drove its founder to his grave. Can our two unlikely protagonists pull together and take on the force of such a villain? You better believe it.

Ratatouille has an abundance of plot, and it is handled remarkably well. Brad Bird, who was responsible for Pixar's The Incredibles, establishes himself as a master of economy, by never falling prey to the exposition. He uses widescreen compositions to capture so much detail that the film cries out for repeated viewings.
There are so many things going on at one time that you find your eyes darting from one side of the screen to the other, doing your best to soak it all in. As a feat of animation, it is dazzling, as a feat of direction, it is masterful. Bird is the most cinematic of the Pixar crew and the one most likely to be able to survive in the world of live action. He indulges in references to past films, including a tip of the hat to Citizen Kane that had me in stitches.

The voice talent shines in every role. Oswalt makes Remy an endearing, loveable, yet intelligent creature, while Romano provides a perfect sidekick in Linguini. The supporting cast makes the most of their time, with Janeane Garofalo making Collette an appropriate hard case, Brad Garrett hilariously overdoing his French accent in the role of Gusteau, while Ian Holm is particularly nasty as Skinner. Taking pride of place, however, is O'Toole. He has a gem of a villain in Ego, and he knows it, giving what may be the most infectiously fun voice work in all of Pixar's productions. He's having a ball, and so is the audience.

Let's face it, Pixar has had an incredible run, but after seeing the almost unbearably, and embarrassingly, cartoonish Cars, I began to get nervous. Breaking out in a cold sweat, my hands began to shake, I had to stop and collect my thoughts. Was this is a sign of Pixar's venture toward mediocrity? Could the animation powerhouse possibly be on the way out? Not if Brad Bird has anything to say about it. His Ratatouille is the most intelligent and mature work in the Pixar oeuvre. It is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking, and I couldn't possibly be happier with it. Pixar is back, baby, and better than ever.

6 comments:

H. Stewart said...

Glad to hear Pixar's back after the abysmal Cars (as an aside, I'm not sure a cartoon can be "cartoonish") :)

I can't wait for June 29th, and I think the name "Gusteau" is fantastic.

Clayton L. White said...

The thing about Cars is, every conversation I've had with other people, and every time I think about the film, the one word that pops into my head is "cartoonish."

I think there's a difference between a "cartoon" and what Pixar does, and Cars leaned more towards a "cartoon."

There are different degrees of animation, in my mind anyway. Looney Toons is more cartoonish than something like Akira or a Miyazaki film. If that makes sense.

H. Stewart said...

I get what you mean, a dichotomy between "cartoons" and "animated films". But now you make "cartoon" sound perjorative, as though Looney Tunes is inherently inferior to Akira; I don't know if that's true!

Clayton L. White said...

No, I didn't mean that at all. Cartoons are more "loopy," I guess is what I'm trying to say. As far as I'm concerned Chuck Jones is at the top of the list of great animators. Being a "cartoon" doesn't make you any less of a great piece of art.

Clayton L. White said...

Maturity is the difference. Maturity in the material, not in quality.

H. Stewart said...

Sorry to mischaracterize you, I know what you mean.