There was a moment near the end of Ratatouille (Disney)—the scene in which a snooty food critic, hilariously voiced by Peter O’Toole, finally samples the movie’s title dish—when I choked up a little bit. Not for the usual reasons you’d cry in a movie: because the story was moving (though it was) or because I identified with the protagonist’s triumph (though I did). No, Ratatouille moved me to tears because it was just so well-done—not kinda cute, not OK-for-a-kids’-movie, but a work of art crafted with as much passion and attention to detail as its hero, Remy the rat chef, puts into every vat of soup he makes. Ratatouille is Brad Bird’s best movie yet, and from the writer-director who made two of the best American animated features of the past decade, The Incredibles and the sadly neglected Iron Giant, that’s something.
Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a very unusual rat. Somehow, in a lifetime of sorting through human garbage with his furry tribe, he’s developed a taste for fresh and delicious food, to the scorn of his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) and father Django (Brian Dennehy). It doesn’t hurt that these are French rats, so the refuse they cull through includes some fine ingredients, including a mushroom that, Remy swears, would be divine if it were properly prepared. His subsequent attempt to swipe some spices from the same kitchen results in a frenzied escape for the whole rat clan. Accidentally separated from his family, Remy winds up in the kitchen of a top-flight Parisian restaurant, Gusteau’s, that’s fallen on hard times since the death of its founder. But the late Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett) appears to Remy in spirit form—sublimely animated to appear both diaphanous and obese—and encourages him to realize his dream and get into the kitchen.
Of course, a rat in a restaurant kitchen is hardly welcomed as a potential apprentice. The unscrupulous Skinner (Ian Holm), who’s taken over Gusteau’s after the master chef’s death, orders the kitchen’s new garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), to dispose of the pest, but Remy’s mute entreaty touches Linguini’s heart, and they wind up rooming together. The pair are soon teaming up in Gusteau’s kitchen, Remy hiding beneath Linguini’s hat, to create culinary masterpieces that the clumsy lad gets credit for.
There are complications involving Skinner, the hard-boiled sous-chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo), and others, but I’ll leave you to be surprised by the story, which leaps and skitters as nimbly as Remy himself. The lead rat’s bodily movements seem to have sprung from countless hours of observing both rodents and Paul Giamatti. He’s schlumpy and self-effacing, but irresistibly menschy, and the conceit that he and Linguini can communicate only through sign language—Remy talks, but only to other rats and his buddy the ghost—makes for some wonderfully subtle scenes between the two.
And the animation, oh, the animation. Every hair in Remy’s coat, a shimmering field of blues, grays, and greens, appears to have its own life. The scene in which the rat colony washes through the sewers of Paris is a breathtaking study in the movement of churning water—in addition to being a plainly great action sequence. The food is drawn and imagined so beautifully (with the help of French Laundry chef Thomas Keller, who consulted on the movie) that you walk out wishing you’d made reservations at Per Se.
It’s refreshing to see an animated feature that doesn’t feel compelled to stuff every speaking part with Julia Robertses and Snoop Doggs. The in-house Pixar voice talent is used to great effect for many roles, including major ones. And Michael Giacchino’s score is reminiscent of Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling, an omnivorous mashup of influences from beat jazz to French chanson.
I have no question that Ratatouille will be both a great critical success and a durable children’s classic on DVD. But I wonder whether it will draw summer audiences to theaters in the numbers it should. The film’s relatively low-key marketing campaign (it’s hard to imagine Remy tie-ins in a Happy Meal) and difficult-to-pronounce title (as the poster points out, it’s rat-a-TOO-ee) may give the false impression that this movie isn’t for everyone. It is: It’s got slapstick, romance, rodents, and a touch of saffron.