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Chacun à Son Goût

[To read my thoughts after seeing the film a second time, click here.]

Brad Bird's new Pixar feature Ratatouille is in many respects a marvel, taking full advantage of the capabilities of computer animation in ways that other cartoon studios' films (and other Pixar films) haven't even approached.

Ratatouille DVDTextures are not just photo-realistic; instead, the realism extends to textures that are totally fantastic, like the rats' spiky fur after Remy and Emile are struck by lightning. The camera seems to move in three-dimensional space—a lovingly recreated Paris—with a fluidity I can't imagine any live-action camera duplicating, as when the villainous chef Skinner pursues Remy along the Seine. The character animation, so often laggard in computer-animated films, is very good, too, and sometimes better than very good, as with the sensitive handling of Colette, the tough cookie who is the only female chef in the kitchen at Gusteau's, the restaurant at the heart of the story.

There's not the thoroughgoing (and very effective) stylization of Bird's last feature, The Incredibles, but in some ways that makes the character animation all the more impressive. My greatest source of apprehension, that Remy and his rodent colleagues would seem a little too much like real rats, and thus repulsive, turns out to have been misplaced. It's not just that Bird uses the animals' expressiveness to take the curse off their rattiness. He very shrewdly makes them expressive not through broad movements but through telling gestures—Remy gives a very winning Gallic shrug when the kitchen boy Linguini asks him if he really can cook. There's not a trace of anxiety or belligerence in the handling of the rats, only a very intelligent awareness that the audience must be comfortable with these characters if the film is to have any chance to succeed.

Ratatouille has negative virtues, too. Pop-culture pokes and nudges, so tiresome in the DreamWorks cartoons and Pixar's Cars, are mercifully absent; neither are there any obtrusive movie-star voices. There's an odd sprinkling of French characters who are presumably speaking French but with a French accent, and Colette's accent is a little too thick, sometimes getting in the way of a joke. In general, though, the voices seem to have been chosen with the characters clearly in mind, in the manner of the early Disney features, and certainly not for the voice actors' marquee value.

But—there's always a but—the film's premise, that a rat might be a great chef, in keeping with the title of Chef Gusteau's book Anyone Can Cook, turns out to be a terribly weak foundation for a film lasting almost two hours. I almost immediately had the sense, as Remy's passion for cooking began to show itself, that he was a supporting character who had somehow taken over an entire film, and that what could have been a very amusing five-minute episode about an incongruously fastidious rat chef had been inflated almost to the bursting point. The expansion of the story required its seemingly endless complications and detours, and ultimately such absurdities as a restaurant kitchen overrun with rats who very quickly become organized to assemble difficult gourmet dishes. (Surely I wasn't alone in seeing in that operation echoes of Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930s.)

Worse, the film's length tempted Bird to try to give his story meaning that it simply can't support, as in the awful scene when Remy's father shows him a shop window full of rat poison, rat traps—and dead rats. I couldn't grasp what Bird had in mind here. Remy resists his father's warning that humans and rats are irreconcilable enemies, but Dad is right, of course; humans and rats aren't separated by religious or political differences, they're biological rivals, and pretending otherwise simply points up how little the cute cartoon rats resemble the real thing. Perhaps Bird is most to blame for this misplaced seriousness—I was reminded of his grumblings about "mediocrity" in The Incredibles—although the equally dubious emphasis on the rats' family life seems to bear John Lasseter's fingerprints. Here again, an attempt to give the story emotional content serves mainly to call up unwelcome thoughts of the real world, and of rats' incredibly rapid reproduction in particular.

It's probably because constructing the story was so grueling a task that Ratatouille slips and stumbles and goes slack so often, in between the expertly choreographed action sequences. I saw the film with a child-heavy audience, and I've never before attended a Pixar showing where the children were noisily restless and bored a good part of the time. Too much of Ratatouille has a sort of corporate-Pixar feeling, with questionable aspects of earlier Pixar features—a wispy premise (Monsters, Inc.), a piling up of plot complications (A Bug's Life), and sentimentality about families, and about fathers in particular (Finding Nemo, Cars)—clustered in one unfortunate film.

I found the romance between Linguini and Colette particularly difficult to accept; Colette is much too hardened to fall for a limp noodle like Linguini. Actually, Linguini should have been the film's central character, but once that role had been assigned to Remy, there was little choice but to make Linguini as hapless as he is. (How could a strong character let himself be manipulated by a rat, even a rat who's a great chef?) Ratatouille echoes Ben and Me, the Robert Lawson book and Disney cartoon in which the mouse Amos presents himself as responsible for Benjamin Franklin's achievements, but it lacks the book's charm and, especially, the cartoon's brevity.

Most surprising, perhaps, Ratatouille lacks Parisian atmosphere, for all the detail of its settings. (Gusteau's is on the Left Bank, apparently in the exact location of the very old and very famous restaurant Taillevent, which lent expertise of some kind to the production.) It's the colors that are most wrong; I can't be more specific until I've seen the film again, but Paris is a northern city, with relatively pale and severe light, and the film's color seems to me more Mediterranean—or Californian.

Ratatouille summons up the San Francisco area, Pixar's home turf, more than Paris, the resemblance heightened by the single most successful character in the film, the lean and sadistic critic Anton Ego. Such a celebrity food critic, whose judgments can make or break a restaurant, is far more plausible as an American than a Frenchman. (The "stars" that are an obsession of French restaurateurs, including those in Ratatouille, are awarded not by celebrity critics but by the Michelin Guide Rouge—the august Red Guide—whose reviewers, like those of rival French guides, are anonymous.) Ego is, in appearance, movement, and voice, stylized very much in the manner of the characters in The Incredibles, and that's all to the good. As in the earlier film, the stylization is wonderfully witty: the restaurant critic is no sybarite but is instead as dark and grim as a stereotypical cartoon undertaker. When Remy's ratatouille breaks through Ego's defenses and awakens his childhood memories, so that he once again takes real pleasure in what he eats, it's the funniest—and most affecting—moment in the film.

It's also a moment, one of the few, that feels wholly Brad Bird's. He didn't come up with the idea for Ratatouille but instead took charge of a foundering project that originated with Jan Pinkava (who has since left Pixar). Bird deserves a lot of credit, I'm sure, for rescuing Ratatouille and making of it a better film than anyone could have expected, but I hope he gets no more salvage assignments. He's at his best, as in The Incredibles, when the controlling ideas are all his.

RatatouilleAfter a second viewing: I saw Ratatouille again the afternoon of June 29, the day it opened, and I came away looking forward to seeing it again—on DVD, certainly, but quite likely in a theater. This is a fascinating film. I haven't changed my mind about Ratatouille's flaws, in story especially, but I responded differently to those flaws the second time I saw it.

We all know movies whose shortcomings, of various kinds, become more glaring the more times we see the films. (I think of all those westerns, including some very good ones, with obvious and jarring cuts from location shooting to indoor sets.) I expected Ratatouille to fall in that category because it asks us to accept a premise that is simply bizarre, that a sewer rat might become the greatest chef in France. But to my surprise and relief, that didn't happen—the silly premise receded in importance the second time I saw the film.

When Brad Bird took command of the film, Pixar's bosses could have asked him to exploit the ickiness of the rat-as-chef idea in a knockabout comic film. But Pixar being Pixar (and Disney being Disney), another choice was foreordained. Thus Bird had to try to make the central idea acceptable through an elaborate explanation of how one rat, Remy, acquired a taste for fine cuisine and ultimately became not just a chef, but the best chef. Thus the opening scenes in which Remy discovers his sensitivity to flavors and flavor combinations, becomes a disciple of Chef Gusteau, and so on.

I think such scenes qualify as "exposition," that deadly movie sin, but what Bird does in them is seize every opportunity for fun in what could easily be tiresome and dull. Thus the lightning strike when Remy and Emile are on the roof, and the old lady's furious cannonade that brings her ceiling down. This delightful stuff performs the valuable function of obscuring if not eliminating some of the film's multitude of loose ends. How is it that this rat understands and even reads English? That question would be irrelevant in another kind of cartoon, but not in this one; and since it can't be answered, it has to be finessed, which Bird does, neatly if not quite invisibly.

Similarly, Remy's manipulation of the kitchen boy Linguini, by pulling on his hair as if the rat were a puppeteer pulling on a marionette's strings, is simply ridiculous—no way such a thing is possible in this cartoon's world—but Bird makes Linguini's spastic movements funny enough to overcome such objections. (Some reviewers have pointed out, correctly, that Linguini's twists and jerks rival Steve Martin's virtuoso performance in All of Me). Throughout Ratatouille, Bird gives life to material that would have died in the hands of a lesser director.

He didn't succeed entirely, not by any means. Not only does Ratatouille have its dead spots, but the silliness and distastefulness of the central idea never really goes away. Had Bird been given another six months to rework the story, I suspect he would have come up with something much stronger than what's on the screen. There's a hint in the funny and charming hand-drawn end titles of how much better this good film could have been. I have to wish that Disney had rescheduled Ratatouille as a Christmas release; but Bird adhered to the original schedule for Ratatouille's release and finished his work on it in eighteen months, after taking over from Jan Pinkava. He's an altogether admirable filmmaker, a disciplined pro whose films have an emphatically individual profile in a field, computer animation, that veers toward the bland and formulaic. For that very reason, as I've said before, I have to hope that his future films will be built around his own good ideas, and not someone else's bad ones.

[Posted June 17, 2007; updated July 1, 2007.]