The Theory of Chaos

Monday, January 07, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Ratatouille

Originally published 7/8/07
Full review behind the jump


: Brad Bird
: Screenplay by Brad Bird, based on an original story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, and Brad Bird, with additional story material by Kathy Greenberg and Emily Cook
: Brad Lewis
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo

Oh, this movie just feels so good. Think of the best meals of your life, the fully-rounded experiences so of a piece with themselves from starting course to dessert that you wouldn’t change one plate arrangement, wouldn’t subtract one drop of cream.
Ratatouille is about great food, but it also is great food. The ingredients are familiar, but that’s what a great chef can do – take some eggs, a little butter and flour, and suddenly flood your senses to joyful weeping.

And this movie is in the care of a most excellent chef. Brad Bird is one of the great filmmakers working today, both
The Iron Giant and The Incredibles are as moving and inventive as the day they came out, and I think I even recognize the silhouette of his long-ago creation Family Dog in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it cameo. There is something irrepressible in all his work – he loves dreamers and enthusiasts and goodness, and what’s more he loves every second he gets to spend entertaining you with his stories about them.

His work here extends a winning streak for Pixar Animation Studios which is now quite without precedent in the history of feature animation. It has been twelve years since
Toy Story, and to this day, each of the eight features they have produced has been a critical and commercial success, and among the best movies animated or not for its given year. Ratatouille is no exception. For years naysayers have predicted a serving of humble pie for Pixar, asking what child would be interested in a story about fish on Australia’s barrier reef, or a nostalgic look back at Old Route 66. I heard the same snooty whispers leading up to this picture – who cares about a rat that wants to cook haute cuisine? Where they always get it wrong about Pixar is that it’s not about the subject matter, it’s about the love the filmmakers have for it, which they convey with consummate and infectious technique. And it’s about the characters they create within these wondrous, alien spaces that are somehow immediately familiar to us. We love the story about the fish, or the cars, and now the rat, because they loved it first and had to tell us about it.

The rat in question is Remy (Patton Oswalt), and his super-developed taste buds do not conform well to the garbage-scavenging rat lifestyle. He idolizes a legendary chef named Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose restaurant was once the toast of Paris, and who believed (as he titled his cookbook), that “Anyone Can Cook”.

So it is only natural what Remy is inspired to do when circumstances conspire to deposit him in the heart of Paris at Gusteau’s own restaurant. It has fallen on hard times – Gusteau is dead, his former sous chef Skinner (a magnificently conniving Ian Holm) pimps out his old boss’ name to sell frozen burritos, and what was once a five-star experience has been demoted to three, mostly due to the poisoned pen of food critic Anton Ego.

Ego, an intimidating specter with a coffin-shaped office, is voiced by the legendary Peter O’Toole in a miniature tour-de-force that calls on every square-foot of resonance and flourish of acting craft his fifty years of experience can summon. Just listening to the force of personality he can coat every vowel in is worth the price of admission. But he is not simply a villain – neither Pixar nor Bird has cause to hold such grudges against critics, and the more we see of Ego, the more we see the cumulative disappointment of his senses, the constantly-frustrated yearning to be swept away. In this, the critic is actually the closet romantic, whose cynicism is only given power because we perceive it as a drum-skin tautly stretched over a well of true, bottomless love that’s crying to be set free again.

Remy makes common cause with Linguini (Lou Romano), an earnest but hapless garbage boy who has no cooking talent, but can be puppeteered to produce delights. Linguini gets the credit, and his life goes on the upswing. He’s looking better in the eyes of passionate fellow chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo). Gusteau’s gains notice again. Skinner suspects a plan to humiliate and supplant him. Throw in Remy’s family, which believes the world of human-rodent interaction inevitably ends at poison and traps, and you have a finely-prepared stew of conflicts with ripe potential for betrayals and surprise reversals.

And it all unfolds in an artist’s rendering of Paris that could hang in a museum. I’ve suspected in Pixar’s last couple of features that they now have the capacity to produce work which is by all human discernment, photorealistic. Look at some of the backgrounds here, and the way the mist hovers off the River Seine, and ask if Paris has ever looked more alive and more beautiful on-screen than it has here. The characters, too, are works of art in their own way. Linguini’s exaggerated nose and worried eyes seem appropriated from the young cyclist hero of the French delight Triplets of Belleville, and Skinner looks like a Picasso study of an angry man wrenched into paranoid, wretched life. Bird goes beyond the animator’s classic proscenium, carefully simulating the focal depths of a real camera to enrich the emotionalism of the scene, or setting the perspective free to travel with a rat scurrying among the pipes and crevices of a house, peeking in at lives along the way.

In defending the critic’s art, Anton Ego writes “The New needs friends.”, and I imagine the founders of Pixar hoped and prayed to inspire such friendship when they first introduced the world to the possibilities of a feature film animated entirely by computers. They’ve become an institution since then, master traditionalists, even, and place an unusual stamp in the end credits that declares the picture “100% animated”, not the product of performance-capture or any other shortcut. Even as they accept the mantle of standard-bearers for their art form, they’re not resting, but still hoping to make magic within it, still hoping to move the Anton Egos of the world along with all the rest. Ratatouille is another all-around triumph, and something no critic, or audience member, should have trouble embracing, and relishing.

P.S. As is frequently the case now with animated features, Ratatouille is preceded by an animated short. In this case, it’s the Oscar-nominated and impeccably-paced Lifted, written and directed by legendary sound maestro Gary Rydstrom. In it he gets to provide a hilarious cross between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a driving test, and demonstrate the comedic power not only of pain, but of the well-timed pause and our innate sympathy for someone who’s just trying to do a good job in a universe that seems designed to frustrate him. It also puts a front-and-center spotlight on one of Rydstrom’s signatures, the most famous sound effect in movie history, the Wilhelm Scream.


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