On the weekend that brings a new Pixar release — thankfully not a sequel or other overt franchise stab — I’ll import this review from my former online home.
There are plenty of creators working in animation, computer or tradition, who know how to use the inherent flexibility of the technique to expand the parameters of what they can include in the storytelling. The can turn sentient candelabras or tough guy baked goods into supporting characters and use the wildest of worlds as settings that are as easily attainable as a suburban kitchen. But until Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, I don’t think I’ve even seen a director take full advantage of the limitless possibilities of animation when it comes to things like staging and shot construction. Bird creates images that are astoundingly dense with details and concocts camera angels and placement that truly ingenious.
The story revolves around a French rat named Remy whose pronounced sense of smell causes him to eschew his family’s garbage-eating ways in favor of the life of a aspiring gourmand. This gets a boost when an unexpected disruption separates Remy from his clan and he winds up in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant using a strange, follicle-driven method of marionette-esque manipulation to guide an otherwise unskilled member of the staff into creating dishes that become the talk of the city. While Remy’s methodology in controlling his culinary figurehead don’t make much sense, neither does a rat who can rescue a disastrous soup after a few deep sniffs, so griping too much about the necessary devices to drive the action would be a needlessly curmudgeonly response to the wonders onscreen. Besides, the involuntary muscle responses yield at least on scene that serves as a worthy, animated successor to Steve Martin’s astounding physical achievements in All of Me. The willing suspension of disbelief is richly rewarded.
If there’s any complaint that can be leveled, it’s that Bird’s film is so stuffed with ideas, that his themes and overall points sometimes get a little muddled (for a little stretch, the film seems to be presenting the argument bros-before-hos, which doesn’t really mesh with the film’s earlier standpoint on the female character that makes up the latter part of that equation). But that same bustling, bulging busyness more often develops into grand set pieces, such as the film’s inspired scene of kitchen rescue late in the proceedings or moments of unexpected grace and insight like the monologue about the art, futility, and daring of criticism (and Bird is certainly not picking a fight; as the director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles he’s been the beneficiary of their largess).
When it comes to that monologue, it’s definitely elevated by Peter O’Toole’s cragged mountain voice, one of many wonderful vocal performances in the film (one of the best, surprisingly enough, comes from Janeane Garofalo). The great cast is just another way that Bird makes the most of the options afforded to him by working in animation. I don’t know if he’s spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how to use the inherent adaptability of his chosen style of filmmaking to push past standing parameters into grand new achievements. I do know, however, that that’s absolutely what he’s accomplishing.