Okay, here’s the usual course of events that I follow with each new Pixar movie. 1) Hear concept. 2) Skeptically conclude that Pixar has finally blown it and there’s no way they can make this idea work. 3) See movie. 4) Offer up silent apologies for my lack of faith.
I’ll be damned if they haven’t done it to me again.
Somehow, they keep serving up gourmet cuisine and making it palatable to the largest audience possible. You’d think that they would take just one wrong step at some point but eight times in a row now, the Pixar soufflé has not fallen. And if they can make this film, about a rat with a refined palate cooking in a French restaurant, work on this level, Pixar can make anything work. Well, maybe not a musical comedy about the Donner Party, but anything else.
Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat and, like any good Pixar protagonist, he is slightly out of step with the rest of his people. The other rats, led by his father, Django (voiced by Brian Dennehy), are happy eating out of the garbage from a little old lady’s farm house. Remy fancies himself a chef, inspired by a world famous chef named Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who claims, “anyone can cook,” so he would rather raid the kitchen, against dad’s orders but with the help of his dim but sympathetic brother, Emile (voiced by Peter Sohn). One of these expeditions, however, leads to the entire colony of rats being chased out of the old lady’s house and Remy gets separated from the group and winds up in Paris at the door of Gusteau’s restaurant.
The establishment has fallen on hard times, due to the death of the famous chef and a scathing review from a notoriously snobby food critic (voiced by Peter O’Toole). It is now run by the cynical Chef Skinner (voiced by Ian Holm), who has licensed Gusteau’s image to every possible kind of frozen microwave food. An awkward boy named Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), son of a friend of Gusteau’s, arrives the same day looking for a job. The young man would also like to be a chef, but possesses little in the way of actual talent, so he’s hired to take out the garbage, instead. When his disastrous attempt to “improve” the soup is secretly rescued by Remy, Linguini finds himself forced to duplicate his success, under the close supervision of Collette (voiced by Janeane Garofalo), who’s the only woman in the kitchen and extremely conscious of her position.
Ratatouille is easily the most adult of the Pixar films, despite its G rating, due mostly to its culinary subject matter, but the relationships between the characters are also more complex than the typical animated fare. There’s enough physical comedy to keep the kids entertained but the grownups will probably get the most out of this movie.
The vocal performances are rich and highly individualized. Despite the recognizable names in the cast, this is not a game of “spot the celebrity voices.” Even instantly recognizable voices like Peter O’Toole’s and Brad Garrett’s are masked behind their performances. Janeane Garofalo’s Collette is both imposing and touchingly vulnerable at the same time.
This being Pixar, I probably don’t need to point out that the computer animation is top-of-the-line, easily the best of all the company’s features so far. Of course, you’d expect the technology to improve with time, but the artistry with which the 1s and 0s are employed is nothing short of amazing. The environments are almost photo-realistic and the human characters, while highly stylized, are expressive and vibrant. The rats are almost disturbingly realistic. They are, fortunately, just cartoonish enough to keep the audience from getting the collective willies.
Finally, if the first nighttime shot looking over Paris doesn’t literally take your breath away, it’s time to check for a pulse.
The producers of this year’s other animated features can stop preparing their acceptance speeches. The Best Animated Feature Oscar for 2007 is pretty much in the bag. Sorry.