Ratatouille, a Pixar production written and directed by Brad Bird, who gave us The Incredibles, arrives in theaters with high hopes and good buzz from critics. Part of the buzz has to do with critics’ hunger for decent summer entertainment in the wake of the hyped and disappointing trilogy threesome of Spider, Pirates, and Shrek. But it also has to do with the reputation of Pixar and Bird. In this case, expectations are, if not fully, then more than adequately met. Despite dragging a bit toward the end, Ratatouille is a smart, funny, well-made film.
At the center of the plot is Remy, a rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) with a discerning palate and a knack for fine cooking. These inclinations make him something of an outcast among his family and friends. An early scene shows Remy examining the rotten, tasteless trash his fellow rats contentedly consume.
Flushed through the sewer, Remy becomes separated from his family. He winds up in Paris, at Gusteau’s, a once respected restaurant that has fallen on hard times, due in part to the disdain of the most influential local food critic, Anton Ego (marvelously voiced by a droll, supercilious Peter O’Toole). After Gusteau’s death, the restaurant’s new leadership decides to enter the frozen food market, with such items as “Tooth Pick’n Chicken.”
But, Gusteau (Brad Garrett) continues to haunt the place. Hovering like a genial, if overstuffed, genie, the ghost of Auguste Gusteau appears to Remy, encourages him in his desire to be a chef, and coaches him on how to make his dreams come true. In the restaurant’s kitchen, where Remy constantly scurries for cover, he inadvertently meets Linguini (Lou Romano), a talentless young kitchen worker with cooking ambitions.
As Linguini lamely attempts to prepare a soup, a panicked Remy intervenes and creates a dish so delectable it’s called a “revelation.” The success of the soup forces Skinner (Ian Holm), the paranoid and imperious head chef, to allow Linguini to cook. He welcomes him to “hell” and demands that he reproduce the soup.
This is a film with terrific, crisp, humorous dialogue and physical, slapstick humor so expertly choreographed it could be the basis of a successful musical. Remi is in constant motion; even his vicarious role as a masterful cook, hidden in Linguini’s chef hat, requires incessant movement, as he turns Linguini into the puppet chef, pulling on strands of hair to make his hands select ingredients and inject just the right doses into the meal.
The sets of Paris and Gusteau’s kitchen are dazzling and sumptuous and the plot lines, intricate without being too difficult for attentive kids to follow. Moreover, Ratatouille is full of memorable characters and relationships, from the fastidious Anton and the overbearing Skinner to the burgeoning affection between the awkward Linguini and the tough girl chef, Colette (Janeane Garofolo).
One of the most intriguing features of Ratatouille is that its message is not what it seems. Set up as an ordinary tale about a misunderstood young person with unappreciated talents, it seems to embody a bland and vacuous democratic ethos concerning equality of ability: “anyone can cook” is the catchphrase heard a number of times in the film. That cliché, however, ends up being supplanted by the more accurate, if less pithy, dictum, “not everyone can become a great artist but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
The good-hearted mockery of the quality of the microwaveable food industry is more than mere French snobbery or some type of anti-Americanism. Instead, as in other things, so too in food and cooking, better and worse can be discerned and appreciated. Contrary to popular opinion, de gustibus disputandum; there are arguments to be had about taste. Like The Incredibles, Ratatouille is really about nobility or excellence in a democratic setting: Not everyone has equal talent or ability but there is no predicting, on the basis of class or nationality, where talent might arise. Fortunately, for moviegoers, there is still some talent left in Hollywood.