Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O'Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett, Julius Callahan, James Remar, John Ratzenberger, Teddy Newton, Tony Fucile, Jake Steinfeld, Brad Bird, Laurent Spelvogel (narrator)
Written by: Brad Bird, based on a story by Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Jan Pinkava
Directed by: Brad Bird
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 111
Date: 06/22/2007

Ratatouille (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

By Hook or By Cook

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Animation studio Pixar is so far ahead of its competitors that the question regarding any new releases is not whether it's any good, but whether it's great. The new Ratatouille is not great, but it's very good, and it's a refreshing step up from last summer's disappointing Cars.

Directed by Brad Bird, Ratatouille is too long and fragments in too many directions, with too many subplots and chases. By contrast, Bird's The Incredibles (2004) was also very long, but was energetic and focused. Moreover, Ratatouille should be a foodie movie; it's about the passion for food, but it contains very few actual references to food or recipes.

Our hero is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a rat with a keen sense of smell and a taste for good food. His fellow rats are content with eating garbage (there's a great line in the trailer about "muscling past the gag reflex" that is sadly not in the finished film). During a quick escape, Remy is separated from his family and winds up in the sewers beneath Paris. At the same time, a gawky young man, Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), through complex family connections gets a job as a garbage boy at the once-famous Gusteau's. Through even more complex circumstances, Linguini and Remy wind up creating a masterful new soup that brings customers back to the restaurant. Despite the fact that Linguini can't cook and Remy must not be seen, the unlikely pair must continue their ruse and keep conjuring up succulent new dishes.

More subplots involve a mean head chef (voiced by Ian Holm), a love interest (voiced by Janeane Garofalo), an inheritance, a nasty food critic (voiced by Peter O'Toole), an ongoing argument between Remy and his father (voiced by Brian Dennehy), the complex relationship between Remy and his brother (voiced by Peter Sohn) and a health inspector. It's a lot to ask of a viewer, and it remains to be seen whether or not kids will have the patience to sit through it all.

With all these ingredients in Bird's stew, one thing bothered me: how does one solve the problem of having Remy cook without being seen? He can hide beneath the tall chef's hats very easily, but how can he show Linguini what to do? (Remy can understand Linguini's speech, but Linguini can't understand Remy's.) Bird's solution doesn't make any sense; Remy pulls on Linguini's hair and Linguini behaves like a marionette. When the rest of the movie plays more or less by real-world rules, this was a disappointing twist.

On the plus side, Ratatouille presents a feast for animation fans. The film gives us a fabulous restaurant kitchen set with every minute detail worked out. Remy can run through it in any direction, whizzing past burners, bowls, utensils, and thousands of other elements. It's a richly designed tapestry that will leave viewers breathless and salivating. Likewise, Peter O'Toole's performance as the critic Anton Ego is worthy of another Oscar nomination. With a long, dark face like a wet noodle, he dribbles and oozes his spiteful dialogue like poison from a pen (his office is even coffin-shaped). Oddly, Anton gives a strange speech at the close about the spitefulness and uselessness of criticism, even though Bird has never received a bad review in his life.

As for the overall film, it would be easy to place the blame on too many cooks, but Bird alone is credited with the film's writing and directing (a few others are credited with "story" and "additional story material"). It's too late to take out any extraneous spices, but suffice to say that, somewhere in the mix, there's a yummy experience.

DVD Details: Disney's DVD comes with a featurette starring director Brad Bird and Napa Valley Chef Thomas Keller. I thought it would be a kind of cooking show, but it's mostly talking heads. Otherwise, we get some (unfinished) deleted scenes, the great short film Lifted, which played in theaters, and the new short Your Friend the Rat. There are a couple of Easter Eggs on the main menu, the funniest of which is a fake ad for rat extermination.

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