I raved a while back about Brad Bird's 2004 movie The Incredibles, which I think is very nearly the perfect movie (in its genre). I was a bit surprised that Pixar didn't jump right into a sequel, since the film was clearly plotted to leave that door open, and it was hugely successful. Instead, director Bird kind of dipped below the radar for a while and reemerged three years later with this new movie, Ratatouille. It's apparently not the case that Mr. Bird needed to do something different, as Ratatouille feels very much like The Incredibles, with similar pacing and action. But if he's doing the same schtick, at least he's doing it, uh, incredibly well.
I've long thought that working at Pixar might be perhaps the perfect job. I suppose I'm basing this enthusiasm on these fabulous finished products which probably do not resemble the work needed to produce them in the slightest. Still, it seems an intensely creative place, you get to work with the leading edge of computers, and you're working with a group of talented and creative people toward a fun and magical end product. I have long been an animation buff, and never moreso than with the rise of computer animation. And Pixar has become a source of continuous delight. A quick review of the studio's output shows that they've clearly hit a mother lode of a formula:
A Bug's Life
Toy Story 2
And now, Ratatouille.
Any one of these movies would amount to an accomplishment that would put you on the map. Eight of them together is a cultural blitzkrieg.
Ratatouille is a laudable addition to the oeuvre. Set in a roughly present-day timeframe, the story involves a rat, Rémy, who discovers he has an innate talent for haute cuisine. Despite his rather human qualities, the rest of Rémy's rat family is appropriately rat-like, and much of the plot involves the pull between his revulsion of rats' unsanitary and garbage-eating lifestyle and the revulsion of humanity towards ratdom (and thus towards the culinarily cultured Rémy). Rémy secretly partners up at Paris's finest restaurant with a dimwitted young dishwasher, making the kid famous as a great chef in due course. You can imagine all the plates spinning in the air in this scenario, waiting to fall crashing to the ground.
For all the pregnancy of the setup, I didn't feel the story covered any new ground. It seemed--dare I say it--like a typical cartoon plot. But the pacing is so great and the voice talent so engaging that you barely notice. Rémy is voiced by Patton Oswalt, someone I've never heard of but whose voice is somehow familiar. But it's the right voice, distinctive and appropriately volcanic.
And then there's the picture itself. In watching Bird's previous movie, The Incredibles, I was amazed that you could pause the movie at nearly any point and frame the shot; it was that beautiful (and it was really cool to look closely in this way at all the stuff that flies by at normal speed; a great deal of care and attention went into every frame of that film). If possible, Ratatouille takes this attention to detail even further. Where the Looney Tunes of the '50s and '60s would sometimes use sparse and almost abstract backgrounds for their shorts, in Ratatouille Bird is flirting with virtual reality. At times it's hard to tell if a given background scene is computer generated or possibly live action which has been skillfully integrated. I don't think any live action footage was used, but it's a testament to computer power and attention to detail that you often can't be sure.
Much of the story takes place in Paris, the sights and smells of which are still fresh in my memory. And the movie evokes the place fantastically, often with a slight and well-judged exaggeration. With The Incredibles I noted that Bird was very skillful in how he keeps us in the cartoon world, while pushing some aspects of the picture toward stunning realism (it would surely be possible to make very realistic-looking humans, and Bird consciously keeps the characters away from that). In Ratatouille, it's more of the same, with technology pushed a step further. But I also noted that while The Incredibles was populated with engaging and lovable characters, none of the characters in Ratatouille is very attractive, either physically or psychologically. The head chef is devious and cruel (and humorously ugly), the young boy is stammering and awkward, the dreaded food critic is gaunt and supercilious, and Rémy himself is such a buzz of activity it's sometimes hard to actually SEE him. I found it hard to root for anyone, though this shortcoming didn't really dawn on me until the movie was done.
So in that sense I'd give the movie a double grade: as a story, it gets a C; as a visual treat, it gets an A. Composite grade: B.