Friday, November 16, 2007

'Ratatouille' is animation at its best

Computer animated films are everywhere. "Bee Movie" is in theaters and "Meet the Robinsons," "Shrek the Third" and "Ratatouille" have all recently reached DVD. It would be easy to dismiss the whole lot as just kids' stuff, but "Ratatouille" is a great movie. Not a great kids movie, not a great family movie, simple a great movie.

"Ratatouille" comes from the Pixar studio and their track record remains flawless. From "Toy Story" to "Monster's Inc" to "Finding Nemo" to "The Incredibles," there isn't a dud in the bunch.

Today too many animated features go for bright colors and slapstick humor and nothing more. Pixar's films are colorful and have their share of slapstick, but their films are filled with a lot of heart and know that you don't need to condescend to children.

All of this holds true for "Ratatouille," which like all of Pixar's previous films tells a simple story, but tells it well with wit and well drawn characters. Remy (comedian Patton Oswalt) is a rat living in France whose heightened sense of smell gives him a natural talent for cooking.

Remy's idol is a chef from Paris named Gusteau (Brad Garrett) and through a series of mishaps Remy finds himself in Paris at Gusteau's restaurant. The restaurant is on hard times following the suicide of its namesake after a particularly harsh review from Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), Paris' most feared food critic. In one of the film's more off-beat touches, the spirit of Gusteau is Remy's guardian angel, or more likely just a figment of his imagination.

Things begin to turn around for the restaurant when Remy teams up with Linguini (Lou Romano), the restaurant's new dishwasher. Using Linguini like a giant puppet Remy guides him to making delicious dishes that become the toast of the town and that bring back Ego who is ready to crush Gusteau's once and for all.

It sounds like standard stuff, but it is done with a certain degree of sophistication. We all know that there will be a lesson to be who you truly are and that Remy and Linguini will win over Ego, but it is how the film does these things that is unexpected and wonderful.

There is a happy ending, but not the one you necessarily see coming. Indeed how Ego is won over is perfect and resonates emotionally in a way few modern animated films do. Ego has a monologue about food and the importance of critics that is intelligent and heartfelt. O'Toole reads it as if it is a great Shakespearean monologue.

The voice work from everyone is exceptional and while there are familiar names populating the cast, unlike so many other animated features, it is not about the actors, but the story. For decades animated features didn't cast big stars, but the voice that did the job best. That changed following Robin Williams' high voltage turn as the Genie in "Aladdin." When stars do voice work right it can be great fun, but too often it feels like just a gimmick.

In "Ratatouille" the cast's more famous actors disguise their voices and disappear into their characters. It is so much easier to get lost in "Ratatouille's" beautiful rendered Paris and into the plight of these characters when you aren't focused on the voices.

You'd be hard pressed to spot Janeane Garofalo's voice as Colette, Linguini's love interest. Garofalo gives a great vocal performance full of energy and sass and you'd never know it was her.

While there is a good degree of silly antics for children, the film also features a genuine revere for fine cuisine. The film doesn't dumb itself down and has a respect for food that may go over the head of younger kids, but which will be appreciated by adults and makes the film all the more honest.

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