I doubt more than a handful of our readers have ever heard of him, but one of my favorite novelists is Donald Harington, whose books are primarily set in the fictional Arkansas town of Stay More. This guy is ridiculously talented - his prose is stunning, and he manages to create endearing characters out of hillbillies and bumpkins while experimenting creatively with point of view. He’s proven consistently over the last few decades that he can do anything with words. His one misfire, however, was a book called The Cockroaches of Stay More, a take-off the Tess of the d’Urbervilles plotline, about evangelical roaches who worship Joshua Christ. It was almost brilliant, too — Harington created a suspenseful, romantic narrative that might’ve been perfect, if not for the fact that it was impossible to look past the fact that all the characters were goddamn cockroaches. As talented as Harington is, unfortunately, you just can’t compose a relatable, engrossing story when your main characters are disgusting, garbage-eating, disease-ridden pests.
And yet, such is the sleight of hand that Brad Bird manages to pull off in Ratatouille, a movie about a rat with a refined sense of taste. I guess I shouldn’t be entirely surprised; could we expect anything less from the man capable of exploring family values and the neuroses of superheroes in The Incredibles or — an even more a miraculous feat — creating a likable, sympathetic, heartbreaking character out of a robot sent to destroy the Earth voiced by Vin Diesel, as he did in the greatest kid’s film of all time? Of course, in crafting his films so expertly, Bird has set the bar awfully high and, without a pole made of the world’s most elastically springy material (think starletard hoo-ha), it’s not a bar anyone could realistically vault over. But Bird comes awfully close with Ratatouille, which, while not reaching the classic status of The Incredibles or Iron Giant, is still one hell of an entertaining flick.
Remy, a rural French rat voiced by Patton Oswalt (if you don’t know it going in, trying to place the voice will eat at you for 90 minutes), has an unusual talent for detecting the ingredients of food, which his rat colony exploits to root out edible garbage infected with rat poison. Remy’s not particularly pleased with his lot. He can read, and has thus become obsessed with the works of the famous chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), author of the hugely popular cookbook, “Anyone Can Cook.” Gusteau recently passed away, and his five-star restaurant in Paris began serving touristy fare. In fact, after his death, the restaurant lost a couple of those stars, thanks in part to a bad review from a crusty critic with mommy issues, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole).
Meanwhile, a series of events leads to Remy’s separation from his colony (little ones need not fear — there’s no Bambi killing), but he winds up not only in Paris, but in Gusteau’s restaurant, where temptation (along with the chatty spirit of Gusteau) compels him to concoct a delicious soup, for whom the gangly garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), is mistakenly given credit.
And thus is born the Rat-Boy team — Remy manipulates Linguini like a marionette by tugging at the hair on his noggin to Chaplinesque effect, and with every dash of paprika and sprinkle of salt, Linguini’s star rises in the kitchen. However, he is met with resistance by the restaurant’s new owner, Chef Skinner (Ian Holm), who is hellbent on making a quick buck by selling out the good name of Gusteau to corpora-fascist capitalist swine who want to put Gusteau’s likeness on microwave burritos.
Though there are a number of chase scenes — Remy spends a good deal of the movie scampering away from musophobes with shotguns and traps— Ratatouille lacks a lot of the action-adventurey qualities of other Pixar flicks. It’s more of an animated relationship drama, with themes that range from shedding societal stereotypes to fighting bigotry to maintaining one’s personal identity in lieu of selling out to corporate interests. There’s a certain irony to the latter theme — Ratatouille is, after all, Pixar’s first feature since Disney bought them out. But in the film’s funniest scene, Pixar puts to rest any fears that the company will start churning out industry-line flicks aimed at cashing in — there are a number of swipes taken at, if not Disney, then similarly minded corporations willing to put their logo on anything if it means a few more dollars.
In many respects, Ratatouille isn’t as accessible as most of the other Pixar offerings — one easy way to alienate Middle America (the mindset, not the geographic location), it seems, is to feature a Parisian rat who would crinkle his whiskers at anything Applebee’s might offer up. In that respect, Ratatouille is the exact opposite of Pixar’s NASCAR, Americana-obsessed Cars (which I loved), but it’s no less enjoyable. The pop-culture allusions aren’t as dominant in Ratatouille, but the humor is a little more sophisticated and the interpersonal relationships are a little more defined. And yes, the animation is as lush and beautiful as anything Pixar has done in the past, which works both to its benefit and its disadvantage — it’s slightly difficult to identify with the rats because they are rendered so squeamishly well.
(Since this is a Pixar flick, I should probably mention here that the short attached to Ratatouille, about an alien trainee learning the art of abduction the hard way, is their best yet; it’s worth the $10 admission all by itself.)
I wouldn’t think to rank Ratatouille as high as Pixar’s best offerings, but then again, it’s miles ahead of the very best any of the other animation studios have to offer. And really, isn’t it comforting to have that kind of consistency these days, to know - particularly when the other studios cannot be depended upon to put out reliably good fare — that every year or two, Pixar will release a movie that won’t need to be judged on whether it’s good or bad, but whether it’s great or just really good.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Not Even Mickey Mouse Can Take Down the Rats
Film | June 28, 2007 | Comments ()