If there's one studio out there right now that just needs to put its name on something and I'm there, it's Pixar. I mean, I wouldn't be caught dead in the other CGI kid flicks, but for Pixar I make every effort to get to the theater. And, for the 8th time in a row, they make it worth my while. Their new flick, Ratatouille, is a welcome improvement from last summer's Cars, where I felt they stumbled a bit in their execution. This time, Brad Bird is back at the helm and his flair helps to make this toon all that it can be. Well ... for a while anyway. The first act of this thing is pure gold as we watch our rat hero, Remy, building a passion for the culinary art and dreaming of making it a reality. However, once we get into the meat of this story, the plot takes a turn toward the predictable and ended up leaving me a bit underwhelmed. So now, I'm torn. The flick started off wonderfully but then sort of went downhill as its runtime progressed. Sure, it got the job done but I really wanted that passion in the opening half hour to carry over into the rest of the flick which looked like it was ... well ... just following a recipe. Join me as I elaborate, and I promise I won't use any more food analogies. Seriously, I promise.
One thing I can applaud are the gambles that Bird takes with the flick, gambles that no Pixar film has ever taken before. For example, yes, they've all been about talking toys, talking fish, talking cars, etc. But there was always a defined line between the anthropomorphic animals/objects and humans in each respective film. That line was never crossed (well, briefly, but believably, in Toy Story). In Ratatouille, they finally make the decision to cross it and the results are surprisingly jarring for a film that's already made me believe a rat can cook a gourmet meal. A woman chases Remy with a shotgun for an unnaturally long amount of time, another guy chases him throughout the streets of Paris; yeah, people don't like rats, but this just seems to be going a little too far to force another conflict into the film. And, it happens more often than not, I don't care about the humans interacting with the rat, the film handles it really well for the most part, but some of this stuff just took me out of the film altogether. I wondered during the film if I was making a mountain out of a molehill with this minor gripe, I still wonder it now, but in any case I really think it could have been handled better. Of course, I could probably knock <i>101 Dalmatians</i> and countless other Disney flicks for the same thing, not sure why it bugged me here. There's a few other equally odd choices, as well as many instances of formulaic story devices, but the big question on my mind is: should they matter in the face of such a well-rounded film. Usually, when grading a film, I naturally look at the direction of the piece over anything else: the style, the tone, the pacing; each film has its own unique rhythm and mood that comes from the director, and that's usually where a flick scores its points, not in the story. However, alot of the time the structure of the film will have alot to do with those elements I mentioned above, and so if the foundation is unsound with the script, the direction is never given the chance to make up for such shortcomings. I'm making this thing sound pretty bad, aren't I? It's not, don't worry about not getting your money's worth, because you will if you go an see it. Plenty of people are going head over heels for it (which, y'know, kinda confuses me but hey), I read a review where someone said this "restored their faith in modern filmmaking". Wow, talk about a difference of opinion. It's a good time, but it's at the weaker end of the Pixar spectrum for me, especially when it's up against such fantastic pictures like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles; they all outdo this picture by a mile. But is this a blemish on the Pixar record? Not a chance, if anything it's another worthy addition to their library.
I think the real reason Ratatouille worked was its emotional resonance at the start of the picture. Remy had a passion, he pursues his dreams, envisions himself being mentored by his culinary idol, and then tries to make it in the world of cooking. There's something so pure about a tale of one's love for something, so genuine about the early scenes that the later ones can't match, no matter how great the plotting could have been. All the story in the world can't pack the emotional punch delivered at the start of it all. Bird directs magical scenes where we are taken away to Remy's world of passion for food, in which the real world fades away and he's left with splashes of color and emotion that come from his love for food. These sequences are genius and they're the kind of thing that easily could have provided a strong core for the entire film to run on. But Bird doesn't trust it. He introduces villains and conflicts, and then introduces a few more for good measure. Instead of sticking to the essence of his film, he tries to come at it from all sides. Remy's father disapproves of his son's direction in life, a jealous chef wants to take over the restaurant, a food critic threatens to put them out of business, etc. These plots are cliched beyond belief, they've each been done to death in every sitcom and children's movie a dozen times, the earlier portions of the film lead me to believe the film would be above such trite scenarios, but evidently, it is not. I half expected a greedy businessman to be thrown into the mix who wants to buy the restaurant so he can tear it down and put in a parking lot, but he won't if they can manage to sell all the food by midnight! You get the idea. The movie remains heartfelt throughout, but with a slight hint that the screenwriters were getting lazy. What counters all of this, as I've said, is the genuine and loving direction from Bird. He gives the film his all, and makes no bones about the parallel from Remy's cooking to his own filmmaking. Everything is handled with care and an honest respect for the material that any 10 other films from this summer combined would have a hard time topping. There are some genuinely great performances to be seen here from Patton Oswalt's great voice work on Remy, to Peter O'Toole's welcome turn as the food critic Anton Ego. The praise is being heaped onto O'Toole for his work here, and it is really something great to see. It's especially great just to see a vet of his caliber receiving so much attention right now. His closing monologue at once cements my criticisms of the film, while also rendering them useless. Bird speaks directly through him and all but denounces critics altogether (or at least knocks them down a few notches), by his sentiments that they "risk nothing", and it's absolutely true. But then he goes on to drive a nail into his own coffin by stating that anything that tries something new is worthy of our adulation. Ratatouille, as well done as it is, tries nothing new, and that was my major complaint all along. I admire what's been done here, but I couldn't help my minor disappointment at the loss of potential from the opening to closing. A great film undeniably, but one that left me a little less than satisfied.
Not by much, of course, and that's why this film will still get my certification. Pixar is to be commended on their track record so far, but they're going to have to craft another masterpiece very soon, or all of this will start to feel like filler and not just a tiny lull in their creative genius. Critics are eating this one up, but I have a sneaking suspicion much of it is due to their admiration at being humbled by O'Toole's monologue, almost giddy that the film spoke directly to them for once. It's not definite of course, much of the praise is deserved, and I think you'd do well to get out there and see the film. Especially if you're taking kids, please please please, take them to this and not Shrek the Third, not Surf's Up, I'm begging you. Put the money where it belongs, in the hands of people who truly care, and let them keep working their magic. Ratatouille turned out not to be a cinematic revelation for me, but I can't say I didn't love the film for what it did accomplish. And, contrary to what Bird is saying, to be critical of something is not to "risk nothing", it's just holding a standard to show you care.