It’s always a pleasure to walk into a new movie from Pixar, those kinetic wizards of shiny sculpted animation who gave us the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, and Cars, because it’s a safe bet that you’re in for a sparkly good time — or, just maybe, a great one. In the case of the antic kiddie gourmet comedy Ratatouille, which might be described as Anatole the mouse meets Emeril Live, the expectations are high: The writer-director is Brad Bird, who made The Incredibles (2004), and it would be hard to name an animated film, from Pixar or anyone else, that was ever more incredible.
The hero of Ratatouille is — let’s not mince words — a rat, with scruffy bluish fur and what might be called a highly developed sense of garbage. His name is Remy (he’s voiced by the comedian Patton Oswalt) and really, once you get past any negative associations you may have about rodents (what would an animated fable be if it didn’t fight prejudice?), he’s a very sweet guy, with a knack that might qualify him as a genius. He’s a natural-born chef. It starts with his quivery pink nose, which can suss out the inner essence of any ingredient, from cheese to chervil. While on a rooftop, he gets struck by lightning, which singes the mushroom he’s holding, zapping it into a succulent barbecued delicacy, for which he must then locate the absolute perfect seasoning (it’s saffron, in case you were wondering).
Remy, with his overly refined flavor buds, is the odd fellow out amid his scavenger rat pack of country relatives, who regard his good taste as fussiness. But when he’s flushed through a sewer into the center of Paris, he ends up at Gusteau’s, a once-legendary restaurant (its deceased celebrity chef gets conjured up as a friendly ghost), and before long he has become the kitchen’s star cook. Considering that he’s a rat, you may wonder how, exactly, this is accomplished.
Here’s how: Remy befriends Linguini (Lou Romano), a freckled, redheaded doofus of a scullery boy blessed with no talent whatsoever. Before long, everyone is convinced that he’s doing the cooking. Actually, though, it’s Remy, who sits under Linguini’s toque, pulling tufts of his hair to manipulate his limbs, flinging him around the kitchen like a rag doll so that he tosses the proper ingredients into the pot. Quel wacky rubber-limbed slapstick weirdness! Overnight, the restaurant turns hot. But can Remy and Linguini triumph over the evil head chef, a sawed-off Napoleonic control freak (Ian Holm)? And what about the brooding, cadaverous, ultimate-snob food critic Anton Ego? He looks like a macabre Tim Burton puppet and is voiced by Peter O’Toole, who lends dramatic oomph to lines like ”If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow!” Will he deign to give them a good review?
If it sounds like I’m less than excited about these questions, that’s because the movie isn’t either. Ratatouille is a blithe concoction, as well as a miraculously textured piece of animated design. The foggy Paris streets glow with gaslight romance, and the surfaces of Gusteau’s kitchen have such a vibrant photorealist sheen that you want to reach out and touch them, especially if you’re a foodie (and, really, who isn’t these days?). You can make out every nick and cranny in the polished copper pots and just about smell all of those intoxicating ingredients. When Remy scurries around onto the pipes behind the restaurant walls, the camera tracks him in a loop-the-loop fury, and the pure technical dazzle of the sequence is a delight.
As a story, however, Ratatouille is fun without very much surprise. It’s like a fusty old Disney cartoon retrofitted with the Pixar sheen. The lack of celebrity voices is a major drawback, since Remy ends up with very little personality. Contrast him with, say, the bad-boy Owen Wilson speedster in Cars, and you’re seeing the difference between a hero with spice and a bland one who happens to know where the spice rack is. Linguini, too, is a one-note stumblebum; you keep wishing the film had given him a touch more dignity, or made more of his romance with the kitchen’s feisty, and very French, female chef (Janeane Garofalo). Ratatouille lacks a forceful center of gravity.
At this point, I must pose a consumer-service question: Will kiddies really want to see a movie about a rat who’s a champion gourmand? And will adults warm up to an animated comedy in which an army of long-tailed wrigglies ends up taking over the kitchen? If the movie had a wilder time with its belief in culinary democracy — the notion that, in Gusteau’s words, ”Anyone can cook” — perhaps its triumph-of-the-rodent noodlings would come off as heroic rather than rote. As it is, Ratatouille has the Pixar technical magic without, somehow, the full Pixar flavor. It’s Brad Bird’s genial dessert, not so much incredible as merely sweetly edible.