Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great." So goes the personal mantra of the late celebrity chef Auguste Gusteau, whose disembodied spirit materializes Jiminy Cricket-style to guide the rodent hero of Brad Bird's Ratatouille toward his goal of gastronomic excellence. He also seems to be guiding Bird, who makes "cartoons" a cinematic form usually afforded as much serious artistic credibility as the slasher movie but deserves to be considered one of the most inspired and imaginative storytellers at work in American movies. Not unlike David Chase, who managed to craft an existential epic about work, death and the American family while toiling in that other sub-cinematic medium, Bird has taken the raw ingredients of an anthropomorphic-animal kiddie matinee and whipped them into a heady brew about nothing less than the principles of artistic creation.
None of that should come as much surprise to anyone who saw Bird's two previous features: The Incredibles, with its art-deco fever dream of a superhero family hiding out in suburbia, and The Iron Giant, whose titular extraterrestrial robot turned out to be considerably more humane than the flesh-and-blood government agents hot on his trail. Like that movie, Ratatouille gives us a non-human being unwilling to accept the role assigned to him by society.
When we first meet young Remy (well-voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt), his exceptional olfactory gifts have reduced him to serving as "poison sniffer" for his father (Brian Dennehy), brother and the other garbage-foraging members of their colony. But Remy, who refuses to walk on his front paws for fear of dirtying them, prefers to raid the "good stuff" in the kitchen of the elderly Parisian widow whose attic provides the colony with its latest home. Letting his nose guide him, he combines fresh fruits, cheeses and spices in an array of exotic combinations. And when Remy bites into some new flavor, he experiences a kind of synesthesia, "seeing" the taste represented as a series of shapes and colors. Then, opportunity strikes in the form of forced eviction "Raid!" separating Remy from his family and landing him on the doorstep of Gusteau's, the flagship restaurant of Remy's favorite chef, now reduced to a glorified tourist attraction following the death of its owner and the removal of one of its five stars by the influential food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole). More on him in a minute.
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As luck would have it, Remy's arrival coincides with that of Linguini (Lou Romano), the bumbling, string bean-thin son of Gusteau's former girlfriend, who comes looking for work and is promptly assigned to garbage duty by the kitchen staff's resident dictator, the Napoleonically complicated Skinner (Ian Holm). Linguini, too, has dreams of cooking up a storm, though his efforts in that direction prove ill-fit even for rodent consumption. But with a little help from a certain four-legged intruder who can't verbally communicate with Linguini, but can control the movement of his limbs through the carefully orchestrated yanking of the curls on top of his head voilà! From trash heap to magnifique!
As has been widely reported, the Pixar-produced Ratatouille was begun by another director (Jan Pinkava, who receives a somewhat nebulous "codirector" credit in the film's end titles) and then taken over by Bird well into the development process. That may explain the vestigial presence of certain subplots (including a rather soap-opera-ish bit about Linguini's paternity) and characters (the gamine cook Colette, voiced by Janeane Garofalo, whose tentative romance with Linguini never quite catches fire) that don't seem to fully engage Bird's (or our) interest. Yet the film is unmistakably Bird's own, not least in its focus on the disparity between art and commerce, and between those lives confined to ordinariness and those meant for Olympian heights. Like the Incredible family themselves, Remy is profoundly conflicted about having exceptional abilities in a world that seems to crave mediocrity. (Not for nothing does the movie have Skinner plotting to plaster Gusteau's mug all over a brand of TV dinners.) But the most provocative gesture of Ratatouille is surely its vivid exultation in the pleasures of haute cuisine. It's a slow-food movie for a fast-food nation, being distributed by a company known for its McDonald's marketing tie-ins.
Ego turns out to be the villain of the piece in more ways than one figuratively, in the ill-timed hubris that convinces Linguini to believe the puppet can function without its master, and literally, in the form of its fearsome critic namesake, who lives in a coffin-shaped house and looks like Count Dracula's malnourished brother. But lest you think Bird is taking his revenge on some reviewer who did him wrong, I should add that Ratatouille culminates in of all things an explication of the function of criticism that is as eloquently stated as the film's celebration of the artist. And just when you think Bird has exhausted his recipe book, he pulls off a slapstick climax that rivals the sustained restaurant mayhem from Jacques Tati's Playtime.
But fret not, parents: Bird hasn't made one of those hipster family films that sails over the heads of its intended audience. Ratatouille is as much a feast for the senses as it is food for thought, from the dazzling photorealism of creatures great and small to the impressionistic views of the City of Light. And oh, the dinners delectable plates of soup and sweetbreads and, of course, the titular Provençal stew, rendered with the consultation of such real-life celebrity chefs as Thomas Keller and Jean-Claude Vrinat. Indeed, in today's DIY moviemaking culture, anyone can direct, but only Brad Bird could have made Ratatouille.