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Monday, November 19, 2007

Film: Savory Ratatouille Runs Rings Around Hollywood Crap Factory

Remy the rat

Every new Pixar movie is treated with the expectation that this will be the one to finally break their winning streak. The advance word on Ratatouille was that it was a marketing nightmare set in a country (France) Americans don't like, about a subject that wouldn't resonate (gourmet cooking), and with a name that a number of people didn't even know how to pronounce.

$400 million later and it's hard to argue with Pixar's aforementioned winning streak. More to the point after seeing this on DVD, it's hard to argue with writer/director Brad Bird, who is one of the finest filmmakers working today in any country or medium. This is a better constructed, funnier, more adult, and better edited and shot film than 99% of what came out this year.

Bird 's previous films evidence the unique touch of a master, from the retro style and cold war allegory of the hand-drawn The Iron Giant to his previous Pixar blockbuster The Incredibles which combined slam-bang action, Ayn Randesque self actualization, and marital insight that was nearly the equal of Ingmar Bergman (but a lot more fun.)

Ratatouille brings us Remy, a member of an oppressed and stigmatized group --rats. He is a born cook, drawn inexorably to taste and fragrance and to the worst place imaginable to see a rat -- the kitchen. He is able to fulfill his dreams only with the help of a kindhearted but dunderheaded human. Remy gets to do what he loves while the human takes credit for it. There is also a subplot involving a dead chef and his illicit mistress which tells you right away that Bird is flipping his surname to those who think animation is the purview of children.

In the story of the rats and their relations with humans there are a lot of obvious parallels which are allowed to percolate without being shoved down the viewer's throat. The film put me in mind of another delightful gem from this year, Julie Delpy's Two Days in Paris which rather matter-of-factly acknowledged Paris' vast Muslim underclass. I don't think Bird is saying literally look -- the rats are Muslims (or Jews or blacks) but in these terrorized times it can be hard not to feel an extra resonance to some of the lines and scenes. The connection is made more explicit in a fun extra on the DVD on the history of rats narrated by Remy and his slow witted brother.

What is shoved down the throat is some of the best food porn this side of Tampopo or Babette's Feast. The loving care that is put into creating the wonderful meals here is parallel to the attention Bird and his team paid to every detail and nuance of the film. The kitchen of the restaurant Remy infiltrates is expertly rendered down to the very people working there and one feels a stronger understanding of what it must be like to work in a top restaurant than you would get from a film like this year's Catherine Zeta-Jones clunker No Reservations.

Bird also gets his licks in on critics, embodied by one Anton Ego. For someone who has a deservedly praised body of work, Bird seems to relate to those who have felt the sharp end of the critical stick. Even the most cynical critic has to nod in recognition when Ego talks about how much easier and pleasurable a bad review can be to write. Ego himself though becomes as fully rounded as any of the other characters here and the denouement all comes together perfectly.

This is a must see for anyone who enjoys good cinema, or good food. One of the year's best films Ratatouille gets 5 out of 5 stars:

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