Even the greatest performers slip up sometimes.
Babe Ruth would quite often swing and miss. Pele, on occasion, would struggle to hit a barn door. Tiger Woods has been known to make a spaz
of himself. And so, to bring this laboured metaphor to its conclusion, we come to Pixar - the big hitters of the animation industry. Their batting record was unparalleled until it came to last year's Cars
, a rather lacklustre innings that saw Pixar strike out for the first time.
Fun though it was, it marked the first time the company had failed to match their characters with the concept. The reason? They were all fucking cars. It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's something a little freaky about an entire universe populated by automobiles. How do they procreate? Up the tailpipe? That ain't kid friendly. Cars was a crashing disappointment and felt like Pixar had hit the brakes a little. They'd need to produce one hell of a film to remind us they were still capable of greatness.
Ratatouille is not that film. But it is up there with Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. as one of Pixar's best creature features.
Wisely returning to all that is furry and four-legged, the story is delightfully ludicrous. Remy, a young rat, has a keen sense of taste and smell and has pretensions of being a great chef (naturally, this is frowned upon in the rodent community, most of whom are happy chewing on garbage). Split from his Rat Pack, Remy heads up out of the sewers and discovers he's in Paris - city of love, accordions and baguettes. Under the tutelage of dead master chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett, appearing as a fiction of Remy's imagination), Remy heads to his mentor's ailing restaurant and spies hapless garbage boy Linguini (Romano) sneakily trying his hand at cooking. Remy spies an opportunity, and the two form an unlikely team of kitchen chefs, the small hairy one controlling his awkward human friend like a puppet from underneath his hat. C'est ridicule, non?
The success of Pixar films relies on the connections you feel with the characters, and Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles
) has again worked wonders with Ratatouille. Remy makes for an incredibly cute main character, full of subtle nuances and perfectly voiced by US comedian Patton Oswalt. Watch closely and you'll see some lovely throwaway moments - the way clean-freak Remy dusts off his hands after walking on all fours, for example - all integrated seamlessly into Pixar's typically high standard of animation. Inaudible to humans, Remy must communicate to them via body language, and does so effortlessly. Compared to the cold metal automobiles of Cars, Pixar's critters look more alive than ever.
Linguini is an equally affable character - with gangly limbs, springy red hair and a cracked, inverted voiceover from Lou Romano, it doesn't take him long to gain the audience's sympathy. Remy and Linguini make a sweet partnership and form a nice dependency on one another, a connection that forms the backbone of the movie. The scenes where Remy controls Linguini around the kitchen for the first times are simply marvellous, showing just how adept Pixar are at capturing the genius of truly great physical comedy.
Supporting characters, however, aren't quite so well drawn. Ian Holm's head chef Skinner is little more than a heavily accented bad guy with questionable morals (why would a head chef want to release a range of crappy frozen foods?) and acts only as a 'boo, hiss' magnet. Linguini's love interest Colette, played by Janeane Garofalo, feels like an extra cook spoiling the broth, neither contributing to the overall story arc or much in the way of humour. A spattering of voice talent is also underused - Arrested Development's Will Arnett gets a few lines disguised underneath a Swedish accent, while Peter O'Toole's ancient food critic only really serves as last reel padding.
Although Ratatouille zips along at a fair old rate, the pacing does sometimes feel off, in particular toward the end of the movie, when a huge revelation feels like it's been revealed about half an hour too soon. Bird does paper over the cracks with the odd chase scene here and there, and although they're excellently handled and animated in the best Tex Avery style, it does feel like there's one too many. Thankfully, everything is wrapped up in an entirely satisfactory ending that, while predictable, will put a smile on the face of every last man, woman and child in the audience.
Like the great sportsmen I mentioned earlier, topping yourself season after season is always going to be difficult, especially when you so consistently hit the mark. Pixar haven't quite raised their game with Ratatouille, but they have responded to their recent poor form and delivered what you'd expect from such a high quality performer - cute characters, stunning animation and a life-affirming message in a tidy, kid-friendly package. Let's hope this is the start of another amazing run.