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Extraordinary meals, unexpected sources
A Cinema Review of RATATOUILLE by Camus
 
Are there real and compelling characters in a compelling world doing
things that you want to sit and watch? The execution of [an animated
movie] - how it comes across on screen in sound and light - is a way
of telling a story. Without that story, it's just fireworks.
Co-director (credited in small type after the cast list)
and originator of Ratatouille, Jan Pinkava.

 

So why has this sumptuous feast of a film taken so long to land on these shores? Mainland Europe had it three months ago. Could it have anything to do with Pixar's management being singularly unimpressed with Disney's US based marketing decisions? "It was a fiercely competitive summer!" The movie must have seemed like a tough sell to even neophytes at Marketing 101. The title is unpronounceable (unless you have some food, Fawlty Towers - "He put basil in the ratatouille?" - or French-related education) and it's about a rat in a kitchen (a no-no). Rats are not cuddly. But for heaven's sake, it's Pixar. It's not as if their track record cannot be exploited. John Lassiter's company, now residing at Disney, needed an adrenaline shot after the tiniest whiff of critical disappointment that greeted Cars.

Well, to date, sweet Remy the ratatouille rat has pulled in $476 million worldwide (just what is classed as a success these days?) The P&A budget is almost never included in budgetary analysis (P&A – prints and advertising, sometimes their costs can exceed the actual film's). But then a Pixar disappointment is $461 million box office (sheesh). Cars, whatever anyone says, was a huge hit. And on the subject of what people say, the corrosive catch-all excuse - "creative differences" - has, Bisto-like, curled lazily into the nostrils of industry pundits. It's Pixar's first internal creative squabble – gosh! Stop the presses!

Ratatouille's co-director Jan Pinkava, (credited ominously after the cast list in smaller letters) says in an interview with Computer Arts magazine that he'd always wanted to say the following: "No comment." His remark comes at a time when nosy industry hacks are clamouring for blood – especially as this is Pixar, cinema's golden company producing hit after hit after hit and now melded with Disney in the way that a frothy Guinness head is melded to its dark underbelly. With the exception of distribution muscle and some (questionable) marketing savvy, I didn't think Pixar would sit well at the mouse house. But perhaps Lassiter and co. can 'pixarise' Disney and not fall foul to the reverse. Pinkava (Oscar winning director of the glorious Pixar short Geri's Game) was removed as director of his very own Ratatouille and replaced by Brad Bird, writer/director of The Incredibles. I admit it. I am very curious. Computer animation is planned to the n'th degree (by definition, it has to be) and I wonder mightily what direction Pinkava was taking the rats to have been so sweepingly ousted in what would have to have been a very public disagreement. But regardless of the effect of the behind the scenes "Oh shit, Pixar is just like any other company!" blues, what comes out of a warring (OK, at the least arguing) kitchen still needed tasting.

And Ratatouille is... is... a grown up Pixar. It's difficult for me to qualify that because it's more of a feeling. This loving homage to Paris and its culinary majesty is a triumph of artistic hubris. You do not have to be a man made of rubber tyres to know – almost instinctively – that Paris prides itself as the world's number one focal point for gourmet cuisine. As clichéd as 'each Frenchman has a lover, married or not', and that the entire country's citizens could be summed up by a tartan wearing groundskeeper in The Simpsons as "cheese eating surrender monkeys", so Ratatouille nudges the pendulum a little further in the other direction. France (pardonnez-moi, La France) quite likes Ratatouille and there are many reasons for this.

Ratatouille respects France, understands its national mores and idiosyncrasies. It's no surprise that Pixar's film-makers researched the shitake mushrooms out of their subjects. What the film may have been aiming at under Pinkava's direction is now moot – perhaps sadly, perhaps not. Brad Bird is not exactly a pop culture virgin. The man has made a few affecting and stirring movies (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and had a long stint on The Simpsons to give him some even more deeply rooted pop-culture street cred. But these are Parisian streets and these are French characters. It's a testament to either Pinkava's or Bird's sensitivities or downright worship of all things Gallic, that their version of Paris comes across as highly romanticized but simultaneously and oddly credible.

Remy (played likeably by stand up comedian, Patton Oswalt) is a rat born with Jean Baptiste Grenouille's sense of smell. Who the hell is Jean Baptiste Grenouille? Spray on some Perfume. Remy's father (voiced by Brian Dennehy) suddenly realises his son is an asset – a poison detector. But Remy has ambitions beyond playing the safety inspector of his clan. Routed by an old lady whose shotgun assault of her own home becomes somewhat self defeating, Remy is cast into the drains of France, bereft of family and friends, and ends up in Paris conversing with the spirit of a dead master Chef – the once owner of one of the most respected restaurants of Paris.

Spying on a lowly worker employed to take out the rubbish, Remy witnesses his inept efforts at cookery and needing some rodent refinement. Cue Remy's soup rescue and the lowly worker, Linguini's, utter disbelief at a rat adding ingredients to a soup that would have taken the varnish off Vivien Westwood's nails. Charged to dispose of Remy, Linguini realises that this rodent not only can understand his plaintive grudges but promises to be the Yoda to his Luke. The only "Uh, hang on!" is the script's assumption that a human being can be physically puppeteered and intricately controlled by the tugging of hair. It's a beautiful but wanting conceit but it takes a large slice of fantasy swallowing to be comfortable with this idea. I said to myself "Get over it!" But it took a while. Bird sold the idea well enough by spending some time on the 'training montage'. Peter O'Toole is brilliant as Anton Ego, the food critic whose honey voiced barbs drip with malicious relish and whose selfless decision making and critical integrity serve as the film's climax – and it is remarkably affecting bringing a lump to the throat that no foodie movie I know has ever done before.

Of course, there's romance, action, humour (both sly, literary and slapstick) but above all, there is a tremendous amount of warmth and much more of an adult sensibility – like a film for children (duh) but made with dark chocolate, not milk. If I cannot articulate what I mean I shouldn't be writing reviews (shut up, at the back there) so let's have another crack at it. Ratatouille moved a 46 year old man as much as it touched his 11 year old son. Now that has Pixar written all over it... Bravo.

Ratatouille

USA 2007
110 mins
directors
Brad Bird
Jan Pinkava
producer
Brad Lewis
screenplay
Brad Bird
Simon Pegg
story
Brad Bird
Jim Capobianco
Jan Pinkava
additional story material
Emily Cook
Kathy Greenberg
cinematography
Robert Anderson
Sharon Calahan
editor
Darren Holmes
music
Michael Giacchino
production design
Harley Jessup
starring
Patton Oswalt
Ian Holm
Lou Romano
Brian Dennehy
Peter Sohn
review posted
20 October 2007