Thursday 28 February 2008

Ratatouille (2007)

Thursday 28 February 2008
Directors: Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava
Writers: Brad Bird (story by Jan Pinkava, Brad Bird & Jim Capobianco, with material by Emily Cook & Kathy Greenberg)

Voices: Patton Oswalt (Rémy), Ian Holm (Skinner), Lou Romano (Alfredo Linguini), Peter O'Toole (Anton Ego), Brad Garrett (Auguste Gusteau), Janeane Garofalo (Colette Tatou), Brian Dennehy (Django), Peter Sohn (Emile), Will Arnett (Horst), James Remar (Larousse), John Ratzenberger (Mustafa), Tedd Newton (Talon Labarthe), Brad Bird (Ambrister), Thomas Keller (Dining Patron) & Jamie Oliver (Health Inspector)

A rat with a love of food finds himself in Paris, and gets to live out his fantasy of cooking in a top restaurant, with the help of a kitchen dogsbody...

Following the blip of Cars (visually stunning, but without a decent story), Pixar hits back with a finely-observed and delicately told story about a rat who dreams of becoming a chef. Its premise is certainly "high-concept" – but quite tame in comparison to living toys, a family of superheroes, and a world of talking cars – and Ratatouille doesn't push the boundaries of animation as much. Or maybe we're just getting too blasé about these CGI marvels?

Rémy (Patton Oswalt) is a country rat living with his hundred-strong nest of siblings, most prominently his obese brother Emile (Peter Sohn) and old-fashioned dad Django (Brian Dennehy). While his rodent relations are content to skulk around country farmhouses, stealing leftover food, Rémy dreams of being a top chef like his human hero Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett).

After Rémy is separated from his family after their presence is rumbled by an old lady, he's flushed into the sewers, fortuitously finding himself directly beneath Gusteau's famous restaurant in Paris! Unfortunately, Gusteau has died and the restaurant is struggling to maintain its reputation without him, but Rémy soon forms a unique cooking "double-act" with inept kitchen worker Linguini (Lou Romano) to help Gusteau's regain its former glory...

This is perhaps the first Pixar film that aims slightly higher than the typical under-10 crowd. It's still entertaining for all age groups, but there's less emphasis on pure technical spectacle. Of course, Pixar's success has always boiled down to the care and attention they lavish on the script, before they power up their computers – so this is perhaps nothing new.

Ratatouille, being primarily kitchen-based, can't rely on extravagant sequences to pull it through any dry-spells – although the opening escape of hundreds of rats from a gas-mask wearing granny is quite exciting, and there's a nice chase through Parisian streets half-way through. But, other than that, it's the most down-to-earth, straight-forward Pixar movie yet.

But that's not a criticism. It just once again proves animation can trigger emotional response in audiences without relying on action/musical sequences that would cost a regular movie hundreds of million to reproduce in live-action.

The history of Ratatouille's production is possibly more heated than a week on Gusteau's hotplate. Originally being written and directed by Pixar alumni Jan Pinkava (who made their award-winning short Geri's Game), Pixar began to lose faith in Pinkava's ability to oversee the story in '05 – so they recruited Brad Bird (The Incredibles) to takeover and whip everything into shape.

Pinkava's virtual sets, character designs and basic storyline remained, although Bird made the rats less anthropomorphic, killed Gusteau (who now only appears as an imaginary Jiminy Cricket-style helper), and boosted the roles of villainous chef Skinner (Ian Holm) and sweet cook Colette (Janeane Garofalo). Pinkava retains a co-director credit for his 4 years of work – but only for the end credits.

You can't tell Ratatouille had such a problematic birth, as it's a very polished and efficient piece of storytelling. It probably won't be most children's favourite Pixar offering, as the characters are less iconic, there are fewer laughs, and the story is less epic and imaginative than their previous work. But it's still very enjoyable and should definitely hold the attention of adults -- who will be surprised by how well a conceptually-thin idea develops into tense and amusing territory.

The voice talent are all excellent, with Ratatouille continuing Brad Bird's penchant for using vocally-unrecognisable celebs in his films. Ian Holm and Janeane Garofalo both hide behind French accents, with only Peter O'Toole's marvellously plumy English brogue pricking an ear of recognition as vulture-like food critic Anton Ego. The two leads (Oswalt's spirited Rémy and Romano's amiable Linguini) might not be household names, but they're perfect for their roles. Likewise the rest of the cast.

I also have great affection for Michael Giachino's score, with the composer of Lost and The Incredibles really stepping up with some impressive, evocative, French-themed music. The highlight for me is the eminently hummable "La Festin", which has been floating around my head for days now.

Overall, only the stoniest of hearts could actively hate this film. Its characters may not be as memorable as those in Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., or Finding Nemo, but it more than makes up for it with a passionately told story that entertains every step of the way, and that's quite some feat for an idea that (at first glance) appears too thin to stretch beyond 30 minutes. Above all, Brad Bird is staking a claim as the best director of animation for over a decade, with Ratatouille following the emotionally-vibrant Iron Giant and the barnstorming Incredibles.

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
Budget: $150 million
106 minutes

PICTURE: 2.35:1 | SOUND: SDDS / DTS-ES / Dolby Digital EX