It's no secret that the creative and technical team over at Pixar Animation Studios are geniuses. They do not make cartoons, but veritable cinematic works that just happen to be animated. 1995's "Toy Story," 1999's "Toy Story 2
," 2003's "Finding Nemo
," 2006's "Cars
"all of these efforts are sure to endure and become classics decades from now. In short, they set a standard for which all other studios try, and usually fail, to live up to. As Pixar's latest release, "Ratatouille" is breathtaking to look at, the level of detail and craftsmanship in its computer animation impressive in a way that something more caricaturized like "Shrek 3
" no longer is. The movie's message about perseverance in achieving one's life passions isn't a novel lesson, but it is particularly well-actualized here because the characters are treated with more earnest affection than the genre's norm. Because its heart is in the right place, it is a shame to have to label "Ratatouille" a squandered opportunity. This is not only Pixar's weakest film in almost a decade, but it also is guaranteed to be its most divisive with audiences.
Remy (spunkily voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a scrappy rat with an unorthodox dream to become a master restaurant chef. On the lam from a shotgun-toting old lady whose house they were residing in, he and the rest of his family get separated in the drainage system. Emerging from the sewers, Remy is delighted to discover he is in the heart of Paris, directly across the street from Gusteau's, a renowned restaurant whose late owner he idolizes. When a young relative of Gusteau's, Linguini (Lou Romano), is hired as a lowly garbage boy, Remy comes up with a mischievous plan: hide under Linguini's hat and puppeteer him in the making of the food. By fooling the other chefs and cynical management staff into thinking Linguini is a culinary talent, Linguini will receive a job promotion and Remy will be able to achieve his thought-to-be-unreachable goal of being a chef himself.
"Ratatouille" begins with great promise as Remy is introduced to the audience in a riveting first-act segment that chronicles the day-to-day plight of vermin while establishing our hero's ultimate food-centric aspirations. Once Remy loses his family, befriends human Linguini, and settles in as a secret chef at Gusteau's, the film's momentum lags. A romantic city such as Paris has no business being wasted, particularly when the fleeting establishing shots are so glittering and beatific, but writer-director Brad Bird (2004's "The Incredibles
") foregoes the endlessly dynamic plot possibilities of a rat unleashed into a foreign setting. Instead, he has narrowed his sights on making what amounts to a workplace slice-of-life.
For a family film, it's small in scale, character-driven and slow-paced. Children will like the adorable Remy and admire his courage, but otherwise they will be at a loss in identifying or relating to the low-key subject matter. By and large, this is an adults-focused fable, heavy on dialogue and nuance and the ins and outs of working as a professional chef. So much time is spent in the kitchen of the restaurant that the film becomes claustrophobic and drab, the boundless originality and scope of the rest of Pixar's oeuvre in precious short supply. The comedy, what there is of it, is lightly amusing without earning one laugh. The human interplay, including a romance between Linguini and no-nonsense chef Colette (a French-accented Janeane Garofalo), is forgettable and insubstantial. The central unlikely friendship between Remy and Linguini lacks the emotional resonance of a "Finding Nemo
" or a "Toy Story;" with Remy's talking sounding only like squeaks to Linguini, their communication is compromised and their bond unconvincing.
With forward motion in the plot not one of writer-director Brad Bird's top priorities, scene after scene in "Ratatouille" blend together into a disappointingly dull mishmash. Nonetheless, the picture has some high points. The aforementioned animation is exquisitely realized, with every hair strand on the rats approaching photorealism and the exteriors of Paris standing out because they are so rare. The handling of a stodgy food critic named Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) is smartly realized, transcending what starts out as a villainous character into someone deeper and more sympathetic; his monologue about the process of criticizing and what it means to be a critic is tough, true and on-target. There also is an excellent line near the end that perfectly encapsulates the film's moral: "Not everyone is an artist, but anybody can be an artist." In other words, don't sell yourself short and never say never. It's a valuable capper, indeed, but by this late point in the 110-minute running time, most younger kids will either be asleep or too disinterested to care. No doubt about it, "Ratatouille" is an aesthetic feast. The script, however, isn't up to par with Pixar's above-average norm. Watching the finished film, you find yourself wanting to like it more than you actually do.