Does anyone really want to see a film about a rat – you know, one of those promiscuous, verminous beasts who haunt sewers and spread deadly disease – working in a restaurant? On paper, hell no. From Pixar, yes with (dinner) bells on. Ratatouille overcomes any intrinsic ick-factor thanks to the bottomless charm of its teeny rodent hero, Remy (voiced by US comic Patton Oswalt). With its plate-wide eyes, pencil-eraser nose and ability to make the omelette of your dreams, this mini master chef couldn’t be cuter if its name was Nigella. Witness the turning-point scene where hapless gourmet-diner garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano) quizzes the far-from-home critter (who understands English, but only speaks it with his own species) on his culinary talents: Remy’s adorably coy nods and self-deprecating shrugs prove yet again that Pixar has no peer when it comes to nailing the nuances of expression.
Yes, Ratatouille thinks small, but with big results. Scripter/director Brad Bird rolls back the sweep of The Incredibles and doesn’t shoot for The Iron Giant’s emotional swell. Instead, he whips up a deceptively frothy soufflé. And, like any great cook, he knows that the trick lies in keeping all the ingredients in delicate balance. So there’s the sweet but not too sickly buddy-buddy relationship (a Pixar staple) between Linguini and Remy, the former becoming the toast of the town as he covertly channels the latter’s flair for French cuisine (via some deft hair-pulling puppetry) into new, delicious dishes. There’s also the obligatory moral (“Anyone can cook”), gently stirred in rather than shoved down the throat. And then we have the meaty chunks of chase action, Remy scampering through the niftily choreographed chaos like a four-pawed Buster Keaton (usually in flight from his Napoleonic nemesis, Ian Holm’s head chef Skinner).
The pace never gets as overheated as the similarly ratty Flushed Away, though; after all, we are in dreamy Paris, a place-setting Bird lushly romanticises (dewy by day, coruscating by night) without going in-Seine. In fact, he’s not above a sly pop at the locals: “We hate to be rude... but we’re French,” quips Linguini’s tough-cookie love interest Collette (Janeane Garofalo). Ratatouille’s biggest beef, however, is with pernickety hacks, embodied here by poisonous, cadaverous restaurant reviewer Anton Ego (a super-snooty Peter O’Toole). As the film winds down, it fires up a from-the-heart polemic against professional critics. A pre-emptive attack, perhaps, after the mixed notices for last year’s Cars? Retaliation seems unlikely, though; while few will grade this among Pixar’s best (over-generous running time; solid but – O’Toole aside – unexceptional lung-work; one or two belly-laughs short), it’s too sophisticated, zesty and nourishing to be dismissed as fast-food entertainment. Anyone can cook? Not like this.
Novel in concept, exquisite in execution, another family feast from Pixar suitable for all palates. Not a studio chef d'oeuvre, perhaps, but still the richest of this year's animations. Don't miss the starter course, hilarious space short Lifted.