***1/2 (out of four)
Just when one would have thought Pixar movies couldn’t break any new ground, along comes the visual feast (and I promise that will be last food metaphor) of “Ratatouille.”
The movie tells the story of Remy, whose family of fellow rats is displaced from the French countryside when the woman whose house they have colonized shoots a gun into the ceiling (kind of a long story) and reveals the whole clan in all their disgusting, nasty rodent glory. They must quickly escape on a river and Remy is separated from his father, Django, and his brother, Emile, as well as the rest of their wet, furry crew. At first, he’s pretty upset, understandably, but he does have one thing going for him. He rode through the sewer on a cookbook he stole before they all departed.
If you haven’t seen the trailers for this latest Pixar animated movie, you’re probably thinking, “Huh?” OK, yes it’s weird that a rat would have a favorite book, let alone one that would read a cookbook. But, you see, Remy is obsessed with food. Granted, his whole family loves to eat, but they don’t appreciate the subtle art that goes into a good meal. They’re too bust stuffing their faces with refuse. Meanwhile, Remy is looking around for the perfect piece of cheese to go with a fresh mushroom he found. But he can’t stop there. He then must find the perfect herb and finally – oh yes – a container of saffron.
Sound like anyone you know? Hint: His name rhymes with Pallon Schmeed.
Remy’s idol is the chef Gusteau, whose cooking show Remy watched whenever he could sneak into a house and whose motto was, “Anyone can cook.” After Remy is separated from his family, the only person he has to talk to is the imaginary Gusteau, who hovers over his shoulder like a guardian angel. Remy isn’t depressed for long, though. Once he makes it out of the sewer, he discovers that he is now is Paris. A food nut’s dream come true. Not only that, he quickly finds Gusteau’s restaurant, which is less popular after his death, but still the epitome of class.
It isn’t long before Remy meets the gangly, red-haired Linguini, who begs the head chef for a job mopping floors. With Remy’s help, though, it might be possible for Linguini to become a real chef.
So that’s the basic plot. But the true pleasures lie in all the details, just like the food that Remy waxes poetic about (OK, I know I promised, but that was really more of an analogy than a metaphor, all right?). First of all, my favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, is fantastic as the voice of Remy. You might know him as the neighbor on “King of Queens,” a show I’ve never really watched. I’m a fan of his stand-up comedy, which is not suitable for any child you would take to see this movie. Still it’s easy to see why the director, Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”), chose him for the role. All you have to do is hear a routine from one of his albums in which he raves about how much he loves steak to see what I’m talking about.
Oswalt is great, but he meets his perfect match in Lou Romano’s Linguini, who is the very definition of lovably awkward in this role. The supporting cast is rounded out by Janeane Garofalo as the only female chef in the kitchen and Linguini’s love interest, Ian Holm as the short-statured and scheming head chef and, most notably, Peter O’Toole as Anton Ego, the world’s most discriminating (and cruel) food critic.
With all that said, I must warn you of something. “Ratatouille” is quite different from your usual animated fare, even my Pixar’s unusual standards. Some of the children in the show I saw seemed kind of restless and I think it might go over a lot of heads. After all, the main character is someone who refuses to settle for the mediocre things in life, while a lot of kids in its target audience might be perfectly happy to watch trash like “Yu-gi-oh: The Movie,” or the latest Hilary Duff flick.
Plus, in almost any other animated movie where an animal makes friends with a human, it would be able to talk to him. Bird doesn’t take the east route, though. The rats can understand each other, but all humans hear are squeaks. So how does Bird solve the problem of how Remy communicates with Luigi well enough to teach him to cook? He climbs under Luigi’s chef hat and yanks at the roots of his hair like a flesh-and-blood Pinocchio. It’s a brilliant idea and it leads to some hilarious physical comedy in parts of the movie where we don’t hear Oswalt’s voice at all.
Plus, I must mention that Pixar has once again topped itself in terms of its amazing visuals. I’m not saying that its sights are necessarily as awe-inducing as the underwater seascapes of “Finding Nemo,” but I think it does set another new standard. The chase scenes are thrilling to behold and the food looks so real that I was starving by the time it was over.
Though I’m still not sure if the majority of very young children will “get it” or even be as entertained as by other recent hit animated features, I hope I’m wrong. “Ratatouille” is in a class of its own, much like a five-star restaurant (sorry).
“Ratatouille” is rated G: All ages admitted.