Appellate Judge Tom Becker just thought rats were part of every fine dining experience.
"Anyone can cook. But only the fearless can be great."
I don't know if anyone can direct an animated feature film, but I do know that the fearless Brad Bird has directed three great ones: The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille. Bird is an artist and a craftsman, and his creations are unique, gloriously out of step with the rest of the world, but never out of touch.
Ratatouille, the story of a gourmet rat, is one of the freshest and funniest films of the year.
Facts of the Case
Remy (Patton Oswalt, Balls of Fury) is a rat with discerning tastes. Unlike the rest of his pack, he's not happy just eating anything. In fact, Remy has a talent, a super-sensitive sense of smell, which comes in handy when distinguishing normal, rotten food from rotten food laced with poison.
Remy has another talent. Inspired by the late, great Chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond) and his book, Anyone Can Cook (Remy's a reading rat), Remy discovers he can also create tasty dishes.
When Remy is separated from his pack and finds himself in Paris, Gusteau becomes Remy's spirit guide (though the dead chef frequently reminds Remy that he is merely a figment of the rat's imagination). Remy discovers Gusteau's self-named restaurant, a once-glittering site with a now-tarnished reputation, done in by a series of less-than-stellar reviews by pinch-faced food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole, Beckett).
Gusteau's sous chef, Skinner (Ian Holm, The Sweet Hereafter), is running the restaurant now and making a quick buck licensing Gusteau's name and image to a line of frozen foods. Into the chaotic kitchen trips Linguini (Lou Romano, Cars), a gangly youth whose mother was a friend of Gasteau's. Hired as a garbage boy, Linguini wants to be a chef, but it's clear he's not up to the task. Appalled at Linguini's efforts to surreptitiously spice up a soup, Remy swings into action, and suddenly the soup (attributed to Linguini) is a hit.
Linguini might not be the spiciest sauce piquant in the kitchen, but he knows a good thing when he sees it. Secreting the "little chef" under his hat, Linguini (literally) becomes Remy's puppet, and the Gusteau restaurant begins to climb back to prominence.
Witty and sophisticated, with an inherently subversive premise (aren't we supposed to keep rats out of the kitchen?), Ratatouille shares its sensibilities with classic screwball comedies; it's like Bringing Up Baby, with great anthropomorphized rats stepping in for the great Hepburn and Grant. It's a strangely bold concoction—a G-rated animated film that is clearly made with adults in mind.
This isn't to suggest that children won't enjoy this film. There is enough frenetic activity to keep them interested, and the animation itself is astonishing. But what puts Ratatouille head and shoulders above most recent animated films—most recent films, for that matter—is that it never condescends to its audience. Except, perhaps, for scenes of rats swarming a restaurant, there is no gross-out humor here, and there is no tacked-on "just-so-everyone-gets-it" explanation scene; you know, the one that usually falls between crisis and triumph, and consists of a character laying out the theme (generally along the lines of "Why can't we all get along?" or "Follow your dreams") in a simple, easy-to-digest monologue. Ratatouille is filled with clever blackout-style gags and pay-attention-or-you'll-miss-it references. It will take more than one viewing to catch it all, which is fine: Ratatouille is a film that invites repeat viewings.
At 111 minutes, Ratatouille is long for an animated film, but it never feels padded or dull. There are subplots, side plots, and extensions of the main plot that come together gracefully. Bird could have ended his story at a number of points after the 75-minute mark (when many of the initial conflicts are resolved); instead, he builds on his existing story with new threads, new inventions. This is not fast food; it's worth the wait, and we savor every morsel.
With his gray-blue fur and eloquently expressive face, Remy is a rat we can love. He walks on his hind legs to keep his front paws clean for cooking and always makes it a point to wash before handling food. Remy can "talk" to us but not to Linguini, so much of the rat's "performance" is physical. Bird and company resist the temptation to make Remy over-the-top, instead giving him a believable and endearing subtlety.
The lanky Linguini could be the love child of Stan Laurel and Lucille Ball, and his efforts to work out a system to communicate with Remy are comic highlights.
The animation in Ratatouille is nothing short of breathtaking. Characters move fluidly, whether they are the focus of the action or filling out the background, and they are expressive without being exaggerated.
The animators eschew the brassy, primary-color comic-book look so popular in recent films and offer something more natural and understated. The kitchen looks like a kitchen, full of detail, but not so "busy" as to draw your attention from the action. Paris hasn't been envisioned as so soft a dream since Gene Kelly romanced Leslie Caron to a Gershwin score.
And Ratatouille is all about romance: the romance of adventure and discovery, of fine food, of Paris. When two characters "find" each other and a more traditional romance comes into play, it's not presented as leering or coy but as exuberant, as first love should be.
The transfer here is near perfect, letterboxed in the original aspect ratio and perfectly supporting the highly detailed visuals. We get two audio options, 5.1 and 2.0 surround. Both are fine, with the 5.1 offering an especially clear and rich representation of background and ambient noises as well as dialogue.
The extras are a bit light, but what's here is very good. "Fine Food and Film" juxtaposes interviews with Bird and Chef Thomas Keller, who was a consultant on the film. Here are two men who are passionate about their callings, and that passion comes through in this feature.
It was nice to hear a little from Bird about his background and philosophies. He started experimenting with animation as a child and as a teenager was mentored by Milt Kahl, one of Disney's "Nine Old Men," the animators responsible for so many Disney classics. Bird clearly loves animation as a format, and not just the computer-generated type: The end credits of Ratatouille give us a charming nod to hand-drawn animation.
"Lifted" is an amusing, 5-minute, Oscar-nominated short that played with Ratatouille in theaters. For my money, the best extra on the disc is "Your Friend the Rat," which stars Remy and his brother, Emile, giving us a history of rats and making a "plea" for a world where rats and humans live harmoniously. In style and substance, it reminded me of Jay Ward's "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" cartoons. It's a hilarious little feature and a great addition to this set.
Rounding out the set are three deleted scenes with introductions by the filmmakers and previews for other Pixar and Disney films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a film that grossed over $200 million and is almost certainly going to be an awards contender, this edition of Ratatouille is a bit…thin. Personally, I don't mind that it's not overly larded with supplements, but I'm a little surprised and disappointed that there's not more here. English is the only language option for both audio and subtitles. Other than the 14-minute piece with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller, there are no interviews, commentaries, or "making of" features. I'm wondering if in a few months we won't be seeing a "Special Edition" with two discs, a Brad Bird commentary (which is sorely missing here), a "save Remy from the cat" or similar game, and so on.
Once upon a time, more movies than not were "all-ages entertainment"; "family film" was not a form of penance for adults. Comedies were silly and funny and sometimes sad, and the feelings they evoked were genuine and well-earned. They didn't strain to be contemporary or cutting edge and are as entertaining now as when they were first released.
Ratatouille has those same timeless qualities. It's one of the best films of 2007. While the disc might be more appetizer than banquet, it still offers a great transfer and some terrific supplements. Highly recommended.
The Court is throwing out testimony from the Health Department and breaking for a much-needed repast.
Bon appetit. Non coupable.
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Scales of Justice
• "Your Friend the Rat" (11:00)
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