Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007

Adorable Rodent

By David Luhrssen
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Adorable Rodent Ratatouille on DVD November 24, 2007 | 09:48 AM What's the greatest challenge for a Hollywood marketing department? Probably selling a film whose protagonist is a loveable French rat. The Pixar animation group's summer of 2007 release, Ratatouille (just released on DVD), was an underachiever at the box office—at least by the gluttonous standards of contemporary Hollywood. It was up against several obstacles during its theatrical release. For starters, Americans unfamiliar with French cuisine struggled to pronounce its name. And then there was the problem of the movie's star, who happens to represent one of the world's least favorite species, and a political culture that deemed France as the enemy because they didn't toady to our government. Bill O'Reilly probably assumed the film was anti-American. If you missed it at theaters, give it a second chance. Ratatouille is a Pixar film, and starting with Toy Story, Pixar became the golden measure against which every other American animation studio has always fallen short. Pixar was the pathfinder in computer animation, but its success has been more than technological. Pixar has consistently exceeded the competition inside and beyond the animation field for intelligent, meaningful scripts and memorable, sympathetic characters. Next to the talking toys and fish in Pixar's portfolio, most humans working in Hollywood resemble scarecrows with straw stuffing the hollow spaces where brains and hearts should be. If an animated rat scampering under the floorboards of a Paris restaurant sounds more repulsive than charming, you haven't met Remy. Voiced by Patton Oswalt, he's an adorable creature with sad, expressive eyes. Remy comes from a close-knit crime family—they are rats, after all—but recognizes himself as different from the pack. Remy is reflective and discerning, with a sensitive nose and refined palate. Sneaking into an old lady's kitchen, he familiarizes himself with her spices and devours the televised cooking show of world-renowned French chef Auguste Gusteau. Remy loves the art of cooking. His family's eyes narrow in suspicion that one of their kind is putting on human airs. Poor Remy is heartbroken when hearing that Gusteau has died. But death is no barrier to inspiration. When circumstances chase Remy to Paris and into the bowels of Chez Gusteau, the rodent is befriended by the spirit of the great chef, who serves up wisdom with an accent sharper than Dijon mustard. Remy has a gift with food and Gusteau encourages him to develop his talent against the prejudices of humans and rats alike. Remy's chance to shine comes from the lowest boy in Chez Gusteau's kitchen, a gangly youth in jeopardy of losing his job, called Linguini (Lou Romano). Linguini is much abused by the tyrannical runt who has taken over the restaurant, Skinner, a sellout who markets a line of bad frozen dinners using Gusteau's name and image. Linguini and Remy are a pair of outcasts who become a band of brothers. Hidden inside the hapless youth's chef's hat, the rat coaches him on the culinary arts. Who says too many cooks spoil the soup? Like most previous Pixar films, Ratatouille is packed with ideas about finding oneself within a community, measuring the ties that bind us together and the freedom that sets us apart. Remy overcomes human prejudice and learns to balance his personal identity within the greater fellowship of rats (whose perspective is broadened slightly through his example). It's not just a lesson for kids, but an example for adults in our fragmented society. As usual, there is a strong female character, the assistant cook Colette (Janeane Garofalo), struggling to be taken seriously in a traditionally male world. This time there is also a chilly food critic, Anton Ego, a sinister creature out of Edward Gorey determined to put Chez Gusteau down. The European cousin of the film critic from M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, Ego is the portrait of a bitter intellectual trying to curb the vastness of reality with his tiny thoughts. Ratatouille's animation is fluid, its creatures are lifelike in motion, yet the film never tries to become "realistic." The Pixar style is not a computer-generated substitute for life but an imaginative, moving painting of life. Less predictable in setting and story line than last summer's Cars, Ratatouille represents Pixar gingerly stepping back from the sluggish current of the mainstream for an accessible yet eccentric vision of a rat with grand dreams.
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