Gusteau also seems to be guiding writer/director Brad Bird. Bird might make "cartoons" -- a form usually granted the artistic cred of slasher movies -- but he should be considered one of America's most inspired and imaginative storytellers. In Ratatouille, he's taken the raw ingredients of a kiddie matinee and whipped them into a heady brew, delicious for kids and parents alike.
This shouldn't surprise anyone who saw Bird's two previous features: The Incredibles, about a superhero family hiding in suburbia, and The Iron Giant, whose extraterrestrial robot was more humane than the flesh-and-blood agents hot on his trail. Like that movie, Ratatouille gives us a non-human being unwilling to accept the role assigned to him by society.
When we first meet young Remy (well-voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt), his exceptional olfactory gifts have reduced him to serving as "poison sniffer" for his father (Brian Dennehy), brother, and the other garbage-foraging members of their colony. But Remy prefers to raid the "good stuff," so he spends his time in the kitchen of an elderly Parisian widow, whose attic serves as the colony's latest home. Letting his nose guide him, he combines fresh fruits, cheeses, and spices in an array of exotic combinations. And when Remy bites into some new flavor, he actually "sees" the taste in a series of shapes and colors, a sort of G-rated acid trip.
Soon, opportunity strikes in the form of a forced eviction -- "Raid!" -- that separates Remy from his family. He winds up at Gusteau's, the flagship restaurant of his favorite chef, which has been reduced to a glorified tourist stop after the death of its owner and the removal of one of its five stars by an influential food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole).
As luck would have it, Remy's arrival coincides with that of Linguini (Lou Romano), who comes looking for work and is promptly assigned to garbage duty by the kitchen's resident dictator, Skinner (Ian Holm). Linguini shares Remy's cooking dreams, but not his natural gifts in the kitchen. But with a little help from a certain four-legged intruder -- who can't verbally communicate with Linguini, but can control his limbs by strategically yanking the curls atop his head -- voilà! From trash heap to magnifique!
The Pixar-produced Ratatouille was started by another director but taken over by Bird well into the process, which seems to result in some unevenness. But the film is unmistakably Bird's, especially in its focus on the disparity between lives confined to ordinariness and lives destined for Olympian heights. Remy is torn about having exceptional gifts in a world that seems to crave mediocrity. (Note kitchen-ruler Skinner, who longs to plaster Gusteau's mug on a brand of TV dinners.) The film also vividly exults in the pleasures of haute cuisine -- a slow-food movie for a fast-food nation, distributed, oddly, by a company known for its McDonald's marketing tie-ins.
Ego turns out to be the film's villain in more ways than one. Figuratively, it's a bout of ill-timed hubris that convinces Linguini that the puppet can function without its master. Literally, it's the fearsome food critic Anton Ego, who lives in a coffin-shaped house and looks like Count Dracula's malnourished brother.
All of which makes Ratatouille sound like a hipster family film that sails over the heads of its intended audience. But fret not, parents: The movie is as much a feast for the senses as it is food for thought, from the dazzling photo-realism of its creatures to the impressionistic views of city life.
Indeed, in today's DIY moviemaking culture, anyone can direct, but only Brad Bird could have made Ratatouille.
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