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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


After toys, fish, monsters, bugs, cars, and superheroes, the folks at Pixar now bring us rats. The central character of their latest release, Ratatouille is a rodent named Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) who dreams of someday becoming a great chef. The whole “being a rat” thing would seem to be a hindrance to that goal, but Remy believes anything is possible. His super-sensitive nose and refined palette have given him knowledge of food that surpasses what the average rat knows and even goes beyond what a lot of humans would know too. After being separated from his colony, Remy ends up underneath the restaurant of his favorite chef, the late Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose famous motto was “anyone can cook.”

Since his untimely death, Gusteau’s restaurant has been run by the mean-spirited Skinner (Ian Holm). He takes particular pride in tormenting the new “garbage boy” Linguini. One evening, after being encouraged by the ghost of Gusteau, Remy sneaks into the place and tinkers with a soup recipe, creating a masterpiece that Linguini ultimately gets credit for. When Linguini finds out that a rat is really responsible for the dish, the two strike up a partnership. The rat hides under the hat of the young man, guiding him in making a variety of mouth-watering meals. Skinner suspects something is up but can’t prove it. The moment of truth comes when a notoriously snooty restaurant critic named Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) shows up to give a review.

Ratatouille was written and directed by Brad Bird, the same man who created The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Bird is a first-rate storyteller with a flair for character development. As such, Ratatouille is considerably more sophisticated than the other Pixar movies. It takes its time deepening the plot and giving the characters multiple dimensions. (Remy, for instance, struggles with the idea that rats are basically “thieves” who break into places and steal food.) The movie carries a family-friendly G rating, yet I wonder if this is the first Pixar film that will go over the heads of very young children. Pictures like Finding Nemo and Toy Story could be easily understood by the under-6 crowd. It is possible that the youngest audience members might not fully grasp the nuances of the story, which at one point even includes a plot point about genetic testing. All other age groups, however, will certainly appreciate the film’s wit and pacing. Animated or not, this is a good story told with real flair.

Patton Oswalt, a former star of “The King of Queens,” is excellent as Remy, and Ian Holm and Peter O’Toole are tops as well. I have written before about the use of stars in animated movies. Sometimes it feels like a stunt; you can occasionally sense that the actors are just cashing a quick paycheck. Like all the Pixar movies, Ratatouille goes simply based on who’s best for the part. If they’re a big star, fine. If not, that’s fine too. To give you an example of how well-chosen and unobtrusive the casting here is, consider the fact that I was absolutely stunned to learn that Linguini’s French-accented co-worker/love interest Colette was voiced by none other than Jeanane Garofalo! Like the others, she disappears into character, never giving us that winking tone that says, ”hey, it’s me – the big movie star in here!. Also consider that Linguini (the secondary hero) is voiced by Lou Romano, a visual development/character design artist and not an actor.

It’s amazing how much better these animated movies look every year. By now, you’d tend to think that everything that can be done has already been done. Apparently not, though. Ratatouille represents another step forward – not just on a technical level, but on an artistic one as well. Every location and character is vividly conceived and realized. Improved camera technology allows for some really amazing set pieces, such as one in which we follow Remy in a frantic, non-stop race through the restaurant. I noticed too that the textures are even more life-like than before. There’s a moment where Remy clutches a piece of bread, and darn if that bread doesn’t look 100% real.

Thinking of Ratatouille, I am reminded of John Berendt’s non-fiction book “City of Falling Angels.” The author writes of meeting a gentleman whose rat poison was successful precisely because he tailored it to each country in which it was sold. By studying what rats ate in different countries – and for what reasons – he was able to make the ingredients in his poison geography-specific. Nothing in Ratatouille is as darkly humorous or as gruesome as that anecdote, but I am reminded of it nonetheless. In one story, a human cooks deadly food for foreign rats; in the other a foreign rat cooks gourmet food for humans. Each story is highly enjoyable in its own way, but I hope these two never meet.

( 1/2 out of four)

Ratatouille is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Note: Prior to the main feature, there is an animated Pixar short entitled Lifted that is absolutely hilarious. Even if you don’t like Ratatouille, this short alone is worth the price of admission.

To learn more about this film, check out Ratatouille

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