The story of Pixar’s latest animated triumph, RATATOUILLE, is as audacious as its hero. Not only is it as light and airy as a soufflé, it’s also as complex as the precise physics and flavorings that makes it a miracle. The hero is an unlikely choice in animal hero, a rat, albeit one drawn with a significant cuddly factor, and a plot that follows its own rules while still respecting the classic concept of following one’s bliss. In fact, it’s more about discovering what that bliss is rather than knowing it at the outset. This is a voyage of culinary discovery on several levels, not the least of which is learning to respect the concept, if not the actual meal, of sweetbreads (innards to the non-haute cuisine community) as a form of ambrosia.
That hero would be Remy (Patton Oswalt), with an olfactory sense that is even more sensitive than that found in the average rat, and a palate that has come to delight in the finer things in foodstuffs. The mere thought of how to combine flavors can send him off into a rapturous, out-of-body gustatory experience. His father, though, values it only because Remy, in addition to being able to detect the slightest hint of a lemon twist in a pastry, can also detect the presence of rat poison. A valuable skill, sure, but Remy has dreams beyond the garbage pile and it’s those dreams, specifically a penchant for saffron and the bold plan to smoke a bit of cheese and wild mushrooms during a thunderstorm and sends him on his way to meet his destiny. An unfortunate run-in with the human owner of the saffron results in the colony being disrupted and Remy suddenly on his own in Paris. Disconcerting at first, he soon realizes his dreams might be coming true when he finds himself outside of Gusteau’s, the restaurant founded by his idol, an egalitarian chef who believed anyone could cook, and that life wasn’t worth living after a food critic took away one of his stars.
Gustaeau (Brad Garrett) isn’t just Remy’s idol, he’s also his buoyantly rotund guardian angel, or hallucination, depending on your point of view. With Gusteau whispering in his ear, and Linguini (Lou Romano), the hapless garbage boy as lanky as his namesake, as his human puppet in the kitchen, Remy goes where no rat has gone before, creating bold new recipes while hiding beneath Linguini’s toque. Linguini, who has his own surprising backstory, is a basically good kid, if completely unremarkable except for his capacity to accept the novel idea of a rat being a brilliant chef. But that one capacity is all he needs. Together he and Remy breathe new life into the restaurant, each other, and, eventually, the lives of everyone around him, both human and rat. Together, as they could never do separately, they win the heart of Collete (Janeane Garafalo), a chef with dazzling knife skills and a burning ambition to make it in a male-dominated profession. And, also together, they stay one step ahead of Skinner (Ian Holm), the sallow gnome of a boss at Gusteau’s with a suspicious mind borne of his own duplicitous nature, and grandiose plans to sell out the name and artistry of the late chef with a line of frozen foods.
The story spins out in wondrous way, blithely skipping past what would be, in a lesser script, the clichéd, pat, and unsatisfying endings, instead using them as the jumping off points for a richer tale. These are complex characters, with their own unique failings and strengths. It also allows for nobility of spirit where the audiences might be least likely to expect it. Most of all, it is a glorious celebration of food, where the cuisine is the thing, with pirates in the kitchen, snobs in the dining room, and the sepulchral food critic, Ego (Peter O’ Toole) who sank Gusteau’s, running between them. Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain are both credited as consultants, hence that palpable giddiness over the apotheosis of simple ingredients. Keller even lends his voice to one of the film’s lesser characters. Which brings up the purity of the voice casting. It’s done strictly for the sound, not the stunt of maga-start celebrity, not that Peter O’Toole isn’t a bona fide super star, nor that Patton Oswalt doesn’t have a following. Oswalt’s is a voice that is earnest yet puckish and perfect as that of the rat with a dream.
All well and good, but on top of that is Pixar’s dazzling animation, which fearlessly and triumphantly takes on fur, water, fire, and dizzying sequences through hectic restaurant kitchens and Parisian apartment buildings rife with melodrama. There is physical comedy, broad and subtle, all in the service of that smart script and terrific voice performances all around.
RATATOUILLE is a paean to good food, good friends, and to not letting anyone or anything stand in the way of a dream. Its ending is as unexpected as its hero, and just as inspiring. Even it it’s only to try a pinch of saffron where you never have before.
Click here for the DVD review of RATATOUILLE.