Friday, January 30, 2009

Ratatouille (Pixar/Disney, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Ratatouille, the Pixar/Disney production from 2007 which turned out to be quite appealing — and, oddly, the first digitally animated feature film I’ve ever seen start-to-finish even though these have become a mainstay of modern moviemaking (I believe Pixar has yet to make a movie that lost money!). It occurred to me about a third of the way through that the film (directed by Brad Bird from a story by himself and “co-director” Jan Pinkava, with “additional story material” by Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg and Bob Peterson, adapted into a screenplay by Bird and Jim Capobianco) is an ingenious reworking of the late-1960’s Disney classic The Love Bug: the magical car is changed into a magical rat, Remy (Patton Oswalt), who somehow has developed an excellent palate while his friends and family members, including his brother Émile (Peter Sohn), are content to eat garbage.

The rat clan he and his family are part of assign him to be their official poison sniffer, but circumstances intervene and he ends up in Paris, where he crashes the kitchen of the world’s most famous restaurant, Gusteau’s, currently in decline following the sudden death of its owner (Brad Garrett). He meets a young man, Linguini (Lou Romano), who like the racing driver Dean Jones played in The Love Bug has ambitions for a major career — in his case, as a cook instead of a driver — but no talent for the same. When Linguini tries to make a soup for the Gusteau’s customers, he botches it but Remy saves it by throwing in additional ingredients. The soup is great, and the two form a partnership in which Remy will hide under Linguini’s big chef’s hat and pull one side of his hair or the other to indicate yes or no as to the ingredient Linguini is about to use in whatever he’s cooking.

There’s also a female cook in the Gusteau’s kitchen, Colette (Janeanne Garofalo),who hates him at first sight but naturally eventually becomes his love interest; and a villain, Skinner (Ian Holm), Gusteau’s sous chef, who knows that Gusteau left a will leaving the restaurant to the sous chef if a blood heir hasn’t been found within two years of Gusteau’s death — and what he knows, and we find out well before the other characters do, is that Linguini is actually Gusteau’s son, and if he rebuilds the restaurant’s reputation and his parentage is found out, Skinner will be out of both a fortune and a job.

Perhaps it was the context in which I was seeing this — at the Bears San Diego movie night, with a room full of Gay men — but there seemed to be a lot of quirky Gay references in the movie, from the whole conception of Linguini’s character (he may be shown as in love with a woman, but he also spends a lot of the film’s running time flouncing around the kitchen — Remy is signaling him by biting him on various parts of his body since they haven’t developed the hair-pulling system yet — he debates whether and how to “come out” to Colette and the rest of the restaurant staff that he really has no talent and a rat is doing the cooking for him) to a great bit of dialogue in which the world’s most famous and nastiest restaurant critic, Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole but given a cadaverous, almost Karloffian appearance), the one food writer in the world who hated Gusteau’s even when the master chef who founded it was alive, is asked by Colette how he can be the world’s most famous foodie and still stay so thin, and he answers, “Because if I don’t like the taste, I don’t swallow.”

Actually, the best gags in Ratatouille are almost incidental to the film’s plot; they’re the ones which play off the contrast between the lovability of the rodent characters (not a surprising concept for the studio whose fortune was built on Mickey Mouse!) and the fear and loathing they evoke in humans — including one in which a woman who catches Remy in her house goes after him with a shotgun, blasting holes in her walls as she does so, and ultimately tries to run him down in a scooter with her gun blazing away — and the final payoff in which, after it’s been revealed that the secret of their success is a genius-chef rat, the entire human staff of Gusteau’s except Linguine himself walks out (though Colette thinks better of it, turns around and returns) and Remy gets his entire rat clan to invade Gusteau’s kitchen and cook the big meal for Anton Ego on Remy’s direction, which makes the restaurant a success until the Paris health inspectors get wind that its kitchen is full of rats and shut it down … whereupon in the final scene Linguine, Colette and Remy are running an unassuming little bistro.

Ratatouille is a clever, charming movie — it’s nowhere near as good as Gay Purr-ee (to cite another animated movie set in Paris and playing off the city’s reputation for high culture and haute cuisine) and it certainly doesn’t have as good a voice actor as Judy Garland (though Peter O’Toole comes close, and I like the fact that Pixar — unlike its rivals — doesn’t feel the need to clog up the voice tracks of its films with major stars whether they’re suited to the roles or not) — and Brad Bird is a good enough director to side-step the overall repulsiveness of the film’s concept and make it reasonably entertaining. I can understand why so many people are such intense fans of Pixar’s work, and if this is a fair representation their films are clever and engaging and the animation is quite impressive (even though, given my druthers, I’d prefer to see a traditional hand-drawn animated film to one of these computer things) and I’d like to see more of them; certainly the most recent one, Wall-E, probably “grabs” me more than most of them because it’s a science-fiction dystopia based on a socially conscious concept and managed, despite the potentially off-putting nature of that concept to a mass audience, to be an enormous hit just like everything else they’ve ever made.