Thursday, June 21, 2007

A one hundred percent tasty dish.

There was a lot of worries about Ratatouille from the start, beginning with the name. The phonetic English pronunciation of the title, placed under practically every print ad, showed how the Disney suits were worried about it. "The story of a rat who wants to be a chef." That had 'em sweating, too. Add to that the location, Paris, and a cast full of the French, who are still the most disliked nationality among the people Americans nominally consider "friendly."

But I don't think anyone at Pixar was worried. And although I don't think this will break any box office records, as an animated film and as a comedy, it is far superior to Cars, and a lot more fun than any of the summer repeats or three-peats that are fighting for box office dominance.

First of all, the animation. At the end of the credits there's a little certificate, a 1950's print-ad cartoon of a smiling man, saying something like:

100% Animated
No motion capture used, ever!

And that's more than just a sneer (a smug French sneer) at DreamWorks Animation and Shrek, or Sony Pictures and Surf's Up. Director Brad Bird and his Pixar crew took the naturalistic background designs from Cars, arguably the best part of that film, and translated them from the American Southwest to Paris. The City of Lights never looked better, anywhere, than in this film. (Although Chuck Jones's Gay Purr-ee is fine if you like abstract art.)

In front of those realistic backgrounds, cartoony CGI characters thrive. Take the human protagonist Linguini (voice by Lou Romano, a background artist for Powerpuff Girls and voice artist on many Pixar films) In many scenes he is "puppeteered" by the rat hiding under his chef's hat, and goes spazzing around the kitchen like Jerry Lewis. (No, the French kitchen staff did not proclaim him a comedy genius.)

This would be an occasion for squash-and-stretch to get out of control at many studios, especially the ones using the motion-capture shortcut. Over the Hedge did a lot of that. Here, although it gets wild, at no point does Linguini look like he was made of rubber like Mr. Fantastic or Elasti-Girl. Proper animated restraint was shown.

And at the same time, Pixar seems to have refined and improved its ability to have CGI human characters emote and feel. One of the film's antagonists is the food critic Anton Ego (voice by Peter O'Toole). In one scene, where the cynical and hostile Ego walks into the restaurant, in profile, he resembles Richard Nixon. And I'm sure they intended exactly that visual implication. I'm not giving away anything by saying that at one point, Ego is momentously pleased. His face hasn't visibly changed or mutated, but he doesn't look like Nixon any more.

Pixar does equally well with the animal characters. Our rat chef Remy (voice by comedian Patton Oswalt) is able to flex and stretch into position. There are some amazing chases and action scenes early in the film, with Remy running in panic through the restaurant - under flaming burners, narrowly avoiding feet and rolling carts, almost getting baked inside a casserole. It's the fastest, funniest and yet most logical chase sequence I've seen in CGI.

All right, so how's the story? It isn't a threat-filled story like previous Pixar films. In fact, it's almost a light romantic comedy. Remy has always loved the idea of cooking. He idolizes Gusteau, a famous chef that has popularized fine cooking. He discovers that the chef has died and his restaurant has dropped from a five-star rating to three. When Remy winds up in the sewers of Paris, under Gusteau's restaurant, he starts seeing images of Gusteau everywhere (voice by Brad Garrett).

Some early misgivings about Ratatouille revolved around the "ghost" of Gusteau. Bringing in the supernatural, in a film not specifically about ghosts or the afterlife, seems like a cheap gimmick. But it becomes clear that this Gusteau is a hallucination of Remy's. Even Remy realizes it. And it's a nice point that Remy realizes it, but only understands the implication of this hallucination until near the climax of the film.

The one featured female in the film is Colette (voice by Janeane Garofalo), one of the chefs. In romantic comedies, females fall on a scale between being a "love interest" and a primary character. Colette leans towards the love interest part of the scale. She influences the plot enough to keep her from being superfluous.

For a G-rated film, there's no overt sex of course, but there's an attitude towards the battle of the sexes that's almost a parody of the French national character. Three times that I counted, two of those with Colette, women scream bloody murder and threaten their men - then suddenly turn around and embrace them. With this, it's odd that she's the only above-the-line female character. For instance, how is it that Remy belongs to a pack of rats that all seem to be male? How did they reproduce?

There's enough action to keep you satisfied, and considerable comedy, but the main emphasis is on the beauty of France and the wonders of cooking as an expression of the soul. It left me with a warm glow. The friend who saw the film with me kept saying "It's a cute film." And it is. But it is also romantic and funny and optimistic.

By all means, see Ratatouille. Stay to the end of the credits; they're entertaining, as much as the credit sequence of The Incredibles. Michael Giacchino's score, romantic and intelligent jazz without a lot of "obvious Frenchness" to it, is worth listening to. And stay to the end credits to see the "100% Animated" certificate. It may become as important a mark of quality as the sight of Luxo Jr., the little animated artist's lamp, jumping out at the start of every Pixar film.