The moral of Ratatouille is delivered by a critic: a gaunt, unsmiling fellow named Anton Ego who composes his acidic notices in a coffin-shaped room and who speaks in the parched baritone of Peter O'Toole. "Not everyone can be a great artist," Ego muses. "But a great artist can come from anywhere."
Quite so. Written and directed by Brad Bird and displaying the usual meticulousness associated with the Pixar brand, Ratatouille is a nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film. It provides the kind of deep, transporting pleasure, at once simple and sophisticated, that movies at their best have always promised.
Its sensibility, implicit in Ego's aphorism, is both exuberantly democratic and unabashedly elitist, defending good taste and aesthetic accomplishment not as snobbish entitlements but as universal ideals. Like The Incredibles, Bird's earlier film for Pixar, Ratatouille celebrates the passionate, sometimes aggressive pursuit of excellence, an impulse it also exemplifies.
The hero (and perhaps Bird's alter ego) is Remy (Patton Oswalt), a young rat who lives somewhere in the French countryside and conceives a passion for fine cooking. Raised by garbage-eaters, he is drawn toward a more exalted notion of food by the sensitivity of his own palate and by the example of Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), a famous chef who insists - more in the manner of Julia Child than of his real-life haute cuisine counterparts - that "anyone can cook."
What Remy discovers is that anyone, including his uncultured brother, can be taught to appreciate intense and unusual flavors. (How to translate the reactions of the nose and tongue by means of sound and image is a more daunting challenge, one that the filmmakers, including Michael Giacchino, author of the marvelous musical score, meet with effortless ingenuity.) Remy's budding culinary vocation sets him on a lonely course, separating him from his clannish, philistine family and sending him off, like so many young men from the provinces before him, to seek his fortune in Paris. That city, from cobblestones to rooftops, is brilliantly imagined by the animators.
DIRECTED BY: Brad Bird
WITH THE VOICES OF: Patton Oswalt (Remy), Ian Holm (Skinner), Lou Romano (Linguini), Brian Dennehy (Django), Peter Sohn (Emile), Brad Garrett (Auguste Gusteau), Janeane Garofalo (Colette), Peter O'Toole (Anton Ego)
RUNNING TIME: 132 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
And, as usual in a Pixar movie, a whole new realm of physical texture and sensory detail has been conquered for animation. Finding Nemo found warmth in the cold-blooded, scaly creatures of the deep; Cars brought inert metal to life. At first glance, Ratatouille may look less groundbreaking, since talking furry rodents are hardly a novelty in cartoons. But the innovations are nonetheless there, in the fine grain of every image: in the matted look of wet rat fur and the bright scratches in the patina of well-used copper pots, in the beads of moisture on the surface of cut vegetables and the sauce-stained fabric of cooks' aprons.
Individually, the rats are appealing enough, but the sight of dozens of them swarming through pantries and kitchens is appropriately icky, and Bird acknowledges that interspecies understanding may have its limits.
Perhaps because animation, especially the modern computer-assisted variety, is the work of so many hands and the product of so much invested capital, we are used to identifying animated movies with their corporate authors: Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar and so on. But while the visual effects in Ratatouille show a recognizable company stamp, the sensibility that governs the story is unmistakably Bird's. A veteran of The Simpsons and a journeyman writer for movies and television, he has emerged as an original and provocative voice in American filmmaking.