Voices: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett and Janeane Garofalo
Director/Screenwriter: Brad Bird
Producer: Brad Lewis
There’s a certain ookiness to the sight of a rat in the kitchen that Ratatouille is never quite able to overcome. But then maybe that’s the point, as it’s this clash of cultures—homo sapien versus genus rattus—that serves as the central conflict in the animated family film. Or, rather, one of them.
Blessed with a keen sensitivity to taste and smell, Remy (comedian Patton Oswalt) struggles to fit in with the rest of his rat clan as they rummage garbage in order to survive. As a result, Remy is much pickier about his food, holding out for choice bits of roast mushroom, fresh fruit and cheese rather than settling for mere sustenance. He is also appointed to the unenviable position of food tester, clearing all victuals of the presence of poison before they are consumed. Part of Remy’s appeal is that he acts more human than his rodent brethren. He walks upright, for example, in order to keep his front paws clean for dinnertime, and he reads, though “not excessively”—his favorite tome being Anyone Can Cook by famous Parisian chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett).
When his colony is driven from their home in the French countryside, Remy is separated from the rest of his family but finds himself in the sewers of the City of Light and at the doorstep of Gusteau’s. Once a five-star restaurant, the establishment has fallen on hard times since the death of its namesake, as head chef Skinner (Ian Holm) has parlayed the brand name into a line of American-inspired frozen foods (think corn dogs). Encouraged by Gusteau, who appears sprite-like as a figment of Remy’s imagination, the rat realizes he can return the chef’s kitchen to its former glory, but he’s going to need help, and the new garbage boy Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), in danger of losing yet another job, just might be the perfect partner.
Amid the action are a buffet of themes most often articulated in maxims attributed to Gusteau. To a member of a species that forages others’ stores for food, he lectures, “A chef makes; a thief takes.” By way of explanation of how it is a rat can cook, he says, “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Also sprinkled on the script are notions such as the bonds of friendship and loyalty; pursuing one’s passions, even when your family and friends don’t understand; and, with regard to human-rat relations, whether “change is nature” or “nature is change.” But, aside from the chef’s most revered saying, “Anyone can cook,” moviegoers are offered little more than a nibble rather than a full entree of most of these ideas.
Like the pic’s themes, plot points are shoveled at viewers in spoonfuls too large for proper digestion, while the absence of transitioning scenes are at times akin to skipping the palate cleanser during a multicourse meal—disorienting at first but soon forgotten. But Ratatouille’s narrative shortcuts only serve to make room for the fun, of which there are generous servings.
In his follow-up to The Incredibles, writer/director Brad Bird has drawn on the comedy of all different eras and styles. Buster Keaton’s silent physicality is an influence here in how Remy and Linguini solve the issue of communicating while keeping the rat out of sight. Also at work are word play (a much-feared food critic is named Anton Ego) and visual puns (his office is shaped like a coffin), and Bird toys with cinematic convention (the most precious moment in the film is when Ego takes his first bite of the titular dish). The humor is operating on all levels, like the flavors coalescing in one of Remy’s delectable concoctions.
Speaking of which, be prepared to leave the theatre with an appetite, as all five senses will be salivating: One can veritably see the texture of peeled carrots and raw chicken; hear the crackle of bread crust; smell the cutting of raw onions; feel the heat of the steam rising off a pot of simmering soup; and taste, well, all of the above.