“Ratatouille” is delicious. In this satisfying, souffle-light tale of a plucky French rodent with a passion for cooking, the master chefs at Pixar have blended all the right ingredients — abundant verbal and visual wit, genius slapstick timing, a soupcon of Gallic sophistication — to produce a warm and irresistible concoction that’s sure to appeal to everyone’s inner Julia Child. Though the latest crowd-pleaser from “The Incredibles” writer-director Brad Bird arguably reps a harder sell than earlier Disney/Pixar toon outings, the combo of critical excitement, energetic word of mouth and shrewd marketing should make this family-friendly feast a gastronomical success worldwide.
After the less than universally admired “Cars,” Pixar’s eighth feature sees the Disney-owned toon studio in very fine form, and confirms Bird’s reputation as one of the medium’s most engaging storytellers. Compared to his woefully underseen “The Iron Giant” and Oscar-winning “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” may be smaller in scope, but in telling the story of a very smart rat striving to enter the very human world of French haute cuisine, it shares with its predecessors an affinity for gifted outsiders seeking personal fulfillment.
Pic also extends two of the great themes of “The Incredibles”: the pursuit of excellence over mediocrity (a standard that has long distinguished Pixar from rivals and imitators) and the importance — or rather, the unavoidability — of family ties. Remy, a thin blue rat who lives with his unruly rodent clan in the French countryside, finds himself torn between these two commitments as the film opens.
Blessed with unusually sharp senses, Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) is educated, cultured and mad about creating his own culinary master-pieces — the complete opposite of his tubby, good-natured brother Emile (Peter Sohn) and gruff dad Django (Brian Dennehy), who are content to wallow in trash and disapprove of Remy’s all-too-human higher ambitions.
After an unfortunate cooking mishap, the rats are evicted from their rural nest and forced to escape through the sewers — where, in the first of many nim-bly orchestrated action sequences, Remy is separated from his family. He winds up in Paris, near a restaurant once presided over by the legendary chef Auguste Gusteau, whose populist motto (“Anyone can cook!”) rings in Remy’s ears as he spies longingly on the bustling kitchen activity.
One busy evening, Remy can’t resist sneaking in and spicing up a vat of soup; credit for the delicious dish goes to the poor garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy, stammering type with no talent for cooking, who is immediately ordered by conniving head chef Skinner (Ian Holm) to reproduce his success.
While man and mouse experience difficulty communicating at first, they ultimately agree to team up, a la “Cyrano de Bergerac”: Linguini can keep his job, and Remy can slice and dice to his heart’s content. The result is a classic odd-couple comedy in which Linguini and his “little chef” must learn to work together, avoid discovery and, inevitably, deal with the internal and external pressures that threaten their unlikely partnership.
Among those threats are the kitchen’s lone female, Colette (a tough-talking but tender Janeane Garofalo), whom Linguini inevitably falls for; the up-to-no-good Skinner, who’s both suspicious and jealous of Linguini’s success; and an uber-acerbic restaurant critic, aptly named Anton Ego (a sneering Peter O’Toole), who once ruined Gusteau’s reputation.
Premise was originally conceived by Jan Pinkava (who left Pixar before the project’s completion but is credited here as a co-director) before Bird took over the reins — a transition that may explain why some of the secondary characters and subplots feel a tad rote, particular in the more manic later stretches, though the overall execution is never less than involving.
But “Ratatouille” is at its finest in the kitchen, as Remy learns to whip up sauces and sweetbreads while directing Linguini’s movements from beneath the latter’s cap. The joy of artistic creation is both palpable and infectious, and Bird and his supremely inventive team of animators and designers respond in kind — giving viewers a glimpse of mouth-wateringly realistic cuisine one moment, dazzling them with some delightfully Keaton-esque slapstick the next.
After the superhero spoof of “The Incredibles” and the auto anthropomorphism of “Cars,” the idea of yet another talking-critter toon might strike some auds as overly quaint and familiar. But the last thing “Ratatouille” wants to serve up is yet another shrill, jabbering, pop-culture-referencing menagerie. Under Bird’s careful direction, Remy, with his persuasively rat-like movements and meek nods and shrugs, delivers one of the more endearing and soulful animal “performances” in recent memory. Oswalt’s dialogue delivery, though consistent with the generally superb voicework, never dominates the charac-ter’s expressive range.
As ever with Pixar, there’s the sense that a complex world has been beautifully and minutely imagined from the inside out, one where it’s clear the film-makers have done their homework (what other family movie would bother to explain the meaning of a demie chef de partie?). The entire produc-tion is a captivating visual delight, as the fluid shifts between human and rodent perspective, and the camera’s sensitivity to different gradations of light and color, are nothing short of stunning. As an impossibly romantic valentine to the City of Lights, pic could give both the recent “Paris, je t’aime” and the forthcoming “2 Days in Paris” a run for their money.
Wide-ranging score by Michael Giacchino (“The Incredibles”) stays perfectly in sync with the action, encompassing string- and accordion-based Gallic overtones as well as a light percussion that suggests the scampering of rat paws.
Pic is preceded by an amusing Gary Rydstrom-directed short, “Lifted,” which cheekily imagines a driver’s ed lesson aboard a UFO.