Thursday, July 12, 2007


Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garafolo, Peter O' Toole, Brian Dennehy, Ian Holm, John Ratzenberger

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: G

**** (out of ****)

Anyone can cook. Yes, even a rat. That's the central premise behind Disney/Pixar's latest animated feature, Ratatouille. On the surface that sounds silly and maybe even a little disgusting. Yet from that off-putting description writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) gives us a movie that's a meditation on friendship, family, romance, loyalty and society's expectations of us, while miraculously at the same time crafting a deep parable on discrimination. On top of that it's also one of the best movies about food and cooking I've ever seen.

Despite its G rating, this isn't as much of a kid's film as you may imagine. In fact I'd go as far to say it really isn't a kid's film at all. There's no question kids may enjoy it, but this is Pixar's most mature, sophisticated effort to date and will likely be a bigger hit with adults. The movie tackles so many issues and is so intelligent that a lot of it is just bound to fly over little kids' heads. That would be a problem if the film weren't so funny and dazzling to look at. There's more than enough here to keep everyone entertained.This is one of those rare "family films" that actually is for the entire family. That it'll be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar (and likely win) next year is a lock , but I hope come January voters don't overlook Bird's brilliant script in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is not your ordinary rat. He lives with his father Django (Brain Dennehy) and brother Emile (Peter Sohn) in a rat colony but unlike his family he has a heightened sense of smell and an appreciation for fine gourmet cooking. He's frustrated that his fellow rats steal food and eat garbage. He wants more. This inspiration comes from watching his hero the late Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) on television and reading his world famous cookbook entitled, "Anyone Can Cook." Gusteau recently passed away after evil, underweight food critic Anton Ego (the great Peter O'Toole) gave his restaurant a negative review. After a series of funny events Remy finds himself separated from his family and at the window of Gusteau's self-named restaurant in Paris, which is now being run by tyrannical chef Skinner (Ian Holm) and has settled into a rut of mediocrity. It doesn't help that Skinner seems more interested in marketing frozen t.v. dinners bearing Gusteau's name than running a five-star restaurant.

Remy watches as a new employee arrives named Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), a garbage boy with no culinary talent whatsoever. After a mishap involving a spilled pot of soup, Linguini is bailed out of trouble by Remy, but soon the whole kitchen thinks Linguini is a master chef. Actually though, it's Remy pulling the strings for Linguini in a clever and hilarious way. Linguini now not only has to deal with the job pressure and guilt of taking credit for someone else's work, but also the kitchen's only woman cook Colette (Janeane Garafolo), a feisty perfectionist who feels this newfound success has gone to the star chef's head. She has no idea just how right she is (literally). As for Remy, he must contend with being a rat in a human's world and the baggage that comes with it. There are more surprises to be found and they develop in exciting and interesting ways throughout the entire picture and come together for a stirring finale. Watching it I had a feeling the final minutes of the film would be strong, but I had no idea it would be that moving.

I have to admit I went into this film with a mindset not unsimilar to O'Toole's nasty food critic. I had no desire to see this movie and have long ago grown sick of animated films. In fact, I had sworn off them. I thought Disney/Pixar had gone as far as they could go in this medium and we've seen everything. Last year's tedious Cars did nothing to restore my faith in animated features. Even the ones I've enjoyed (like Toy Story and Finding Nemo) I wasn't that crazy about. They were great films for kids, but I couldn't honestly say that parents would enjoy them nearly as much, if at all. Ratatouille is different. It not only breaks new ground in animation, but in storytelling as well.

I've never seen Paris look as good as it does here with its rich, vibrant colors and city landscape scenes that resemble a beautiful painting. The details in the animation of the humans are incredible and the computer generated food images not only look completely real, but appetizing and delicious. By the time I left the theater I was extremely hungry, which isn't an easy feat considering this movie stars rats. That's only half the story though. Within this visual feast Brad Bird weaves a story that's not only intelligent, but emotionally resonate and far-reaching. Aside from O'Toole there are really no huge names providing the voice work, but it's terrific all-around with special mention going to Oswalt and Romano. I also have to say there's no way I would have ever guessed Colette's voice belonged to Janeane Garafalo (employing a bizarre accent) unless I read the credits.

In most movies you'd be lucky to find just one character you care about. This one has two you care about deeply. Bird somehow even manages to bring remarkable depth to the food critic, who should be a stock villain, but instead becomes more important than we could have possibly anticipated. There's a speech given at the end of the film that's so beautifully written and meaningful I can't believe it's in an animated film. Movies like this aren't supposed have dialogue written that well or touch on themes this deep. I've seen so many live action films with real actors that attempt to tackle the issues contained here and everyone falls flat on their face. Just how smart is this movie? When Remy finds himself separated from his family and on the cusp of being accepted by humans he can't handle it. Why? Because he's a rat. He can try but he must overcome his own insecurity of viewing himself as others see him. He's stuck in a vicious cycle. A self-fulfilling prophecy. This is an animated film… and it's psychologically deep! Bird could have easily rested on his laurels and let the animation carry the movie through but he didn't. He took the time and effort to craft a screenplay that actually says something important, knowing full well most of the younger audience seeing this won't be able to completely process it all.

The question now becomes: Do you punish the movie for not catering to the target audience it's marketed for? I say no because it never really was marketed solely as a kid's movie. How many kids do you think can even pronounce (much less spell) the title of the film? Its G rating and Disney tag lead everyone to assume this was kiddie fare, which is unfair and actually kind of inaccurate since the film does contain a scene of attempted murder and a character getting drunk. The theater I saw it in kids were screaming and being dragged down the aisle throwing tantrums while adults sat transfixed by what they were seeing. That confuses me because we all know if there's one thing kids hate it's being pandered or talked down to. They want to be treated like they're intelligent and important. This movie does that. I have a feeling the reaction of the audience I saw it with says more about behavioral issues and a lack of parenting skills than the film itself. I will say it was a relief to finally see an animated feature from Disney that didn't have characters breaking out in Randy Newman songs. I'm not too sure kids will feel the same way though. This was a huge risk for Disney and it's great that it's paying off. Good, old-fashioned word of mouth has spread about just how good this film is and all the rumors are true. It's as good as audiences are saying, and better. It's already number 49 on the internet movie database top 250, has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and will deservedly go down as Pixar's greatest achievement.

Ratatouille stands as further proof that if you have the germ of a good idea it can turn into something great. Brad Bird just had three words: "Anyone Can Cook." What he does with that simple phrase and how he expands it to make it mean something so much more is what great screenwriting and movie making is all about. A lot of you are probably familiar with the industry term "logline." It's a brief sentence describing your film when you pitch it to the studio. If I read the logline, "A rat, with a keen sense of smell, is separated from his family and becomes a gourmet chef in a Paris restaurant" I'd think it was the stupidest idea I ever heard and has no feature film potential at all. However, I know if Brad Bird told me what he was going to do with that sentence I'd fall out of my seat in shock. He took the worst logline in history and turned it into a four-star film. Now I finally understand what Roger Ebert meant when he wrote, "it's not what a movie's about, it's how it's about it." When I compose my list of the top films of 2007 I'd be shocked if Ratatouille isn't somewhere on it. The film is a joy to watch from beginning to end and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face after seeing it. It's a reminder of just how magical movies can be.

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