Sunday, July 08, 2007

Rats in the Kitchen

RATATOUILLE, the second collaboration between writer/director Brad Bird and computer-animation powerhouse Pixar, confirms Bird's status as the greatest American director of animated features alive. John Lassiter's works for Pixar may have pulled in more money, and the Shrek directors (I forget their names) may make crowd pleasers, but no one grabs hearts and minds with binary numbers like Bird.

Bird's first feature, THE IRON GIANT, was a fantastic cell/cgi film that got great reviews but did poor box office. His second (and first with Pixar), THE INCREDIBLES, garnered both the critical acclaim and the big bucks -- not to mention the all-important merchandising success. Now, having conquered the boy-and-his-robot and superhero-satire genres, he has progressed to Disney's (Pixar's current owner) bread and butter: funny-animal comedy. With rodents, yet.

But Bird dares to deal with a much less cute and cuddly critter than Disney's flagship mouse: a rat. Riskier still, in telling the story of a rat named Remi who seeks to become a French chef, he dares to show a rat in the kitchen. Several rats, actually. Uncomfortably lifelike rats, especially when they swarm. At one point, one of the cooks in the film enters the kitchen, sees rats everywhere, and nearly pukes. We know how she feels.

Yet Bird pulls it off. The main reason is his characters. They are three-dimensional, both visually and psychologically. It's inaccurate, for instance, to say that Remi wants to be a chef. He truly cannot help it. With his intellect, and his discerning sense of smell, he is essentially doomed to be a gourmet. In one brillliant scene, he tries to escape from the kitchen of a restaurant where a stockpot of soup is being ruined. But he can't help himself. He tosses a handful of spices into the soup. As he runs, he compulsively turns back and throws in some wedges of garlic. Still he cannot escape, until he adds creme fraiche and cheese. And so on.

How he ends up teaming with a hapless young man, Linguini, as a front (especially difficult, because while the rats in the movie can talk to each other, they can't speak to humans), makes a fun, sometimes silly, and often touching movie.

Even one of the villians of the piece, restaurant critic Anton Ego (a cadaverous sort, voiced by Peter O'Toole, who gleefully types scathing reviews on a typewriter that looks like a skull, in a study shaped like a coffin), turns out to have hidden depths, leading to the most emotional scene in the movie.

One of the few recent animated movies to receive the now-reviled "G" rating (even though one of the plotlines revolves around a development that may be difficult to explain to kiddies), RATATOUILLE should delight and please kids and adults alike. Just, um, try to maintain during those rat-swarming scenes.

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