I love Brad Bird with the kind of passion I usually reserve for Judd Apatow. The way Apatow knows comedy, Bird knows animation. His first movie, The Iron Giant, is a classic and probably the last great 2-D animated movie that will ever be made. His second movie, the computer-animated Pixar hit The Incredibles, actually topped it and is, in my humble estimation the greatest animated movie of any type ever made. Everything Brad Bird touches turns to gold, so when Pixar’s Ratatouille faced production troubles Bird was brought in mid-stream to fix it. It worked. Ratatouille continues Pixar’s unbroken string of filmmaking successes, but if you’re ranking Pixar movies it lands somewhere near the bottom. Ratatouille is good, but it’s easily Pixar’s weakest film since A Bug’s Life. For any other studio that would be nails, but when you’re measuring against the past work of Bird and Pixar it’s a mild disappointment.
Remy is a Parisian rat with a nose for fine dining. While his family is content to scarf down garbage, Remy is saddled with a more discerning palate. It’s not just that he likes eating good food, he loves cooking it too. It’s his passion, his obsession, and since he’s a disease-ridden scavenger it’s also his curse. Things change for Remy when he meets a kitchen boy named Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano) and convinces him that he can cook. The entire movie hinges on how Remy convinces Linguini that he’s more than a normal rodent, and the film avoids the usual Dr. Doolittle route usually used in such cinematic animal/human relationships. During their initial encounter the movie sticks staunchly to the idea that in the eyes of humans, even the ones he befriends, Remy is still just a rat.
Remy convinces Linguini through happenstance, and Linguini’s reaction to the revelation that a common kitchen rat can cook brilliant dishes is real, and grounded. Because Bird plays it so real, it adds a layer of complexity to their relationship and the movie. It’s something Pixar’s never really tackled before. Usually, their movies are focused on exploring worlds outside our own, with no real interaction between the places they’re taking us and our reality. Sure, the toys in Andy’s room come to life, but they never actually interact with Andy. In Finding Nemo there’s never a moment where the fish suddenly start hanging out with humans. Even in Monster’s Inc., we’re exploring a hidden world beneath our own, and it’s only a small toddler who crosses between the two. In Ratatouille the secret world of rats and the familiar world of man collide, and making that work without turning the film into a garish, Looney Tunes cartoon is a pretty tall order.
Bird pulls it off, but only just barely. The movie feels uneven in parts, as if it were stitched together. Linguini’s first meeting with Remy seems authentic, but then the next day when Remy starts driving him around like a puppet, it feels like something lifted from an episode of ‘Pinky & the Brain’. Remy’s ruminations on what it’s like to be a rat whose also a foodie are great, but his secret conversations with an imaginary, ethereal human chef are bizarre. The ghost-chef character plays like something they added in at the last minute to fill in narrative holes leftover in the script after Bird was brought in to try and save it.
Because of that, the relationship between Remy and Linguini never quite fits together. Even though Linguini treats Remy kindly, I never got the sense that he was all that invested in him as anything other than a meal ticket. The film does a much better job developing a romance between Linguini and fiery French sous chef Collette. Ratatouille completely embraces Paris as a magical place of light and love, delivering an ode to other great romance and noir films set in France’s magical capital. The film’s beautiful and at times nearly photorealistic animation of the city makes it a place where two people can’t help but come together, and with a little help from their locale, the relationship that grows between Linguini and Collette has all the genuine spark that we never quite get between Linguini and Remy. After all, Remy is just a rat.
The problem however, isn’t the characters or the cast. Rather I think it’s more a product of the script. Ratatouille’s greatest strength is its voice casting. Diminutive, geeky comedian Patton Oswalt provides the voice of Remy, the film’s rodent star. Luminaries like Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Will Arnett, Pixar staple John Ratzenberger, and even Jeneane Garafalo (doing an amazing French accent) voice supporting characters, but they’re so seamlessly merged into their parts that you’ll never notice any of them. You won’t recognize their words as anything other than the characters they’re supposed to be voicing, and I can’t think of any higher praise that can be given to a vocal performer.
More than anything though, I’m dying to see how the critical community will react to the film’s villain Ego. Ego is a food critic, and not a nice one at that. But it’s not simply the fact that Ego is a bad guy which may rock critics right out of their chairs, it’s Ego’s long, narrated confession towards the end of the film which will likely pop a few tops. Ratatouille uses a critic as a bad guy, but I don’t believe the movie sets out to bash critics. Critics are genuinely reduced to sniveling cowards to be killed off by monsters or nerd-clones of Harry Knowles who annoy the hell out of everyone. Ratatouille does neither and instead I think gives the profession an almost frighteningly spot on, brutally fair evaluation. Critics may not like letting Pixar pull back their curtain, particularly when the company’s films have to date, have received such a warm reception from them.
Ratatouille may not be on par with some of Pixar’s instant classics like Toy Story or The Incredibles, but it’s a solid film from the only movie studio that, so far anyway, can do no wrong. For my part, I wonder why Brad Bird agreed to take over such a problematic project to begin with. After Incredibles, you’d think he’d have all the clout he needs to stick with his own ideas. Whatever the reason, bringing him in to finish it seems to have been the right move. Rumor has it that Brad’s major modifications to the film included changing the rats to make them more rat-like, and in fleshing out the movie’s human element, in particular the love story between Linguini and Collette. Those are the parts of the film which work best, but it’s in fitting those two worlds together that the movie sometimes has problems. There’s no way for us to know what Ratatouille was like before Bird took over, but the end result works.