It would seem that Pixar's newest animated movie, "Ratatouille," has a few obstacles to overcome. The title isn't in English, and a good percentage of the audience has probably never tasted it, let alone heard of it. The hero, Remy, is a rat. Not only that, a rat who spends most of his time just where we don't want to see one—in a kitchen. The setting is Paris, and the movie is a love letter to a romantic notion of France that is not currently in fashion, at least in certain political quarters. And who would ever think of making a family movie aimed at foodies?
Has Pixar lost its pixilated mind? Pas du tout. Brad Bird, the unconventional creator of "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles," has come up with a film as rich as a sauce béarnaise, as refreshing as a raspberry sorbet, and a lot less predictable than the damn food metaphors and adjectives all us critics will churn out to describe it. OK, one more and then I'll be done: it's yummy.
Bird seems to relish the challenge, and even at first to encourage our resistance to his rodent comedy. It starts out dark, in the rainy French countryside, and while the blue rat Remy himself is rather cute, and able to stand on two feet (not to mention read menus in French) his extended family really do look like rats. Nothing cuddly about them. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is your classic outsider. He turns up his finely calibrated nose at eating garbage—unlike his beefy, good-natured brother Emile (Peter Sohn) or his stern dad (Brian Dennehy), who can't understand his passion for fine food. Turning his furry back on his heritage, he aspires to become a gourmet chef like his human idol, Gustave, the celebrated Parisian four-star chef whose cookbook, "Anyone Can Cook," is his inspiration. It's unlikely, however, that the late Gustave—whose ghost supplies our hero with otherworldly pep talks during his travails—had a four legged, long-tailed gourmand in mind when he wrote it.
How does a rat rise to culinary stardom? That's "Ratatouille"'s grand slapstick joke. Remy's tragedy is that the species he most admires—us humans—all want to kill him. What saves him is the cloddish kitchen clean-up boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), who inadvertently gets credit for creating the magnificent soup that was, in fact, prepared by Remy. The two form a partnership of convenience, with the rat, hidden in the boy's chef's hat, guiding Linguini's every culinary move by yanking on his hair like a puppet master. The deft, daffy physical comedy is worthy of Blake Edwards in his best “Pink Panther” days. Indeed, the villainous new master chef of Gustave's, the tiny, ferocious Skinner (Ian Holm) calls to mind Herbert Lom's eternal frustrated Dreyfus, as he's driven nuts trying to ferret out the mystery of how the incompetent Linguini could be producing such crowd- and critic-pleasing food. And speaking of critics, Peter O'Toole, dripping effete hauteur, delights in the role of Anton Ego, the most feared food critic in Paris. I won't spoil the joke, but the epiphany Ego has when tasting Remy's ratatouille is a flash of comic brilliance: hilarious and unexpectedly moving.
If Pixar's last movie, "Cars," was hampered by the unavoidable fact that automobile hoods just aren't all that expressive, "Ratatouille”'s lovingly detailed computer animation is a marvel of subtle shrugs and sly facial gestures. Even the food has character (Thomas Keller, the legendary chef of Napa's French Laundry, was a consultant, even designing some of the dishes). What all these gourmet touches will mean to tots is an open question. "Ratatouille" may prove more fascinating to grown-ups than little kids, whose interest in food (other than candy) tends to be functional at best. But surely they'll relate to Remy's cockeyed quest. Like the extraordinary family in Bird's "Incredibles," who refuse to hide their superhuman gifts under a bushel of conformity, Remy won't settle for anything less than the best. He's obviously a stand-in for the moviemaker: the rat as artist. More leisurely and less pop than the wonderful "Toy Story" movies, "Ratatouille" may look and feel kind of French, but its message of self-realization against all odds couldn't be more American.