Ratatouille opens Friday throughout the Triangle.
With such recent, highbrow attempts as Avenue Montaigne and Paris, Je T'Aime aiming to once again cinematically capture the joie de vivre of the City of Lights, it will come as a shock that the most genuine, breezy and incisive portrayal of that city since Richard Linklater's Before Sunset is a technically artificial one.
But, for those who would scoff at the intrinsic verisimilitude of an American-made animated film about French culture voiced by American actors with accents oscillating wildly in their accuracy, Ratatouille concerns itself more with essence than exactitudes or, it turns out, a Parisian travelogue. Assuming the directorial reigns from story creator Jan Pinkava, Brad Bird offers a luminous third feature act on the heels of his equally superb Iron Giant and The Incredibles and firmly ensconces himself as Hollywood's animated film laureate. Here, the Parisian setting is the film's appetizer, an enchanting first course before an entrée of complex, even poignant life lessons.
Ratatouille wallows in the joy of cooking via the anatomy of a celebrated Paris bistro named Gusteau's as seen through the eyes of its newest, clandestine star chef, a mouse named Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt). A devotee of the restaurant's late founder, Gusteau (Brad Garrett), Remy's dream of escaping a vermin's life of thievery and eating garbage one day takes a fortuitous trip down the sewer and onto the streets of Paris. Remy is drawn to Gusteau's kitchen, a paradoxical place: He can indulge his passion, but knowledge of his presence could bring about public ruin and his own death.
The genius of Pixar's oeuvre—aside from its technical and entertainment mastery—is the way it generates intelligent, kid-oriented fare while also seeming to mature with its initial audiences. In a gangly, redheaded 20-something named Linguini (Lou Romano), one imagines the 8-year-old once entranced by Toy Story who, 12 years later, has matured and now faces his first job, love and glimpse of adult responsibility. Linguini, a garbage boy at Gusteau's, secretly longs for the culinary limelight but lacks the confidence and acumen that Remy possesses. Fate bring the two together and Remy soon becomes a Cyrano de Berge-rat, realizing his own aspirations by acting as literal puppet-master over Linguini's bodily movements and thereby transforming the young novice into an overnight cooking sensation.
Ultimately, however, Ratatouille is less about gastronomics, picturesque settings or a rat's life. It underscores the human capacity for both creativity and cataclysm. Remy yearns to experience human sophistication and ingenuity, oblivious to the inherent dangers of such an enterprise. A rosy denouement was perhaps inevitable, although I would have preferred a more bittersweet message about the separation of the species, not unlike the moral to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.
As in Incredibles, Bird accentuates the themes of achievement and nurturing one's gifts and talents in the face of cultural and societal impediments. It is a lesson equally apropos to animated filmmaking, a field currently dominated by vapid, neuroactive money-grabs. Last year's Flushed Away was another delightful rat film, but it was a box office dud. It remains to be seen whether the image of rats crawling about a 5-star restaurant will prove unappetizing. Still, Bird and Pixar again lend artistry to the genre, offering a mature, dainty treat to be savored equally by viewers of all ages.