Friday, June 29, 2007

Pixar Cooks WithJoy, Inventiveness In 'Ratatouille'

A Comic Tour de Force
June 29, 2007

The French have a word to describe "Ratatouille," the tale of a provincial rat named Remy who becomes a great Parisian chef. The word is "génial." Not genial as in cheerful, though Pixar's latest animated feature is certainly that, but génial with an accent, as in brilliant, or inspired. The characters are irresistible -- why would anyone want to resist a hero who so gallantly transcends his rattiness? -- the animation is astonishing and the film, a fantasy version of a foodie rhapsody, sustains a level of joyous invention that hasn't been seen in family entertainment since "The Incredibles."
The uncommon denominator of both productions is Brad Bird, the writer-director-cum-field marshal who, once again, has led an army of artists and technicians in the making of a film that feels both personal and classic. There's the same unerring showmanship, which makes a complex story seem luminously logical, the same delight in hurtling motion, sophisticated comedy (which flatters kids and grownups alike) and copious detail. Instead of using the kitchen of a fancy French restaurant as a picturesque background, "Ratatouille" explores the workplace and its frenzied rituals -- as well as its intricate hierarchy -- with a screwball zest worthy of the sainted Julia Child. And Remy slices, dices and cooks with thrilling ingenuity that overcomes his dual deficits in standing and stature.
But is the world ready for a movie that sees an upwardly mobile rodent in a kitchen as a cause for celebration, rather than extermination? Once you've met the clean little rat in question, and registered the high preposterousness of the premise -- not to mention the elegance of the execution -- the answer is yes. Remy is a born foodie: "If you are what you eat, I only want to eat the good stuff." And he's a dreamer who uses his highly refined sniffer to follow his bliss. What makes him so endearing, though -- and surely winning to kids -- is that he's a quintessential outcast, an underrat who's first reviled by the very people who come to lionize him.
When Pixar Animation Studios released "The Incredibles" in 2004, the company served notice that its computer animation techniques could rival or excel much of the action in live-action movies. Now Pixar, as part of Disney, has taken those techniques to new heights of virtuosity -- and new depths, during a vertiginous ride through the City of Light's sewers. (Although the complexities of fluid dynamics have posed formidable problems for animators, the results here are so convincing that you wonder if they cheated by pouring water into their computers.) "Ratatouille's" tour de force sequence turns on a partnership between Remy and the restaurant's dishwasher, a clueless, gangly kid named Linguini. The rat cooks by remote control as he rides, like a cross between a puppeteer and a mahout, inside Linguini's toque. Their wild dance is repeated a bit too often, but it's the funniest thing of its kind since Steve Martin's body was possessed by Lily Tomlin's spirit in "All Of Me."
The cast of characters is large, remarkably varied and wonderfully voiced, especially Ian Holm's Skinner, the restaurant's dwarfish, dictatorial head chef; Janeane Garofalo's Colette, a feminist chef with a passion to succeed in a milieu dominated by men, and Peter O'Toole's Anton Ego, a food critic of vulpine physique and acidulous demeanor. Anton is, as you might guess, an insufferable esthete, but he is also, bless his caustic soul, eager for new experiences. And so it falls to him to taste, and savor, the vegetable dish of the movie's title in a moment of comic revelation that is nothing short of sublime.

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