Look who's toque-ing

'Rat' confronts burden of creativity

Posted: June 29, 2007

CRITICS AND audiences admire Pixar because it does things no studio would dare do, like make a movie about a rat that cooks your food.

How far would that idea have gone at a Hollywood story meeting? We're a nation that recoiled in horror at video of rats running wild at a Taco Bell - a scene that is eerily recreated in "Ratatouille," and constitutes one of its show-stopping sequences.

Throw in added "Ratatouille" ingredients - it's about cooking, no one can pronounce the title, and everybody in it is French - and you've got a project with demographic challenges.

The truth is, even Pixar had a hard time making it work. It kicked around their Northern California office for years before execs handed it to Brad Bird, the guy that Pixar recruited after he made "The Iron Giant," and with whom it teamed to make "The Incredibles." Bird stripped "Ratatouille" down and rebuilt it his own way.

"Ratatouille" shows its lineage. There's Pixar's peerless three-dimensional animation, brought to bear on a story of a country rat with a gourmet nose who hits Paris looking to find some way into the restaurant industry.

And it has some of Bird's favorite themes - people (or rats) being denied an opportunity to reach their potential, the mistake of judging folks (or robots, or rodents) by appearance.

Remy the rat (comedian Patton Oswalt) wants to enter the world of food, but it's a human world, and his father warns him that cozying up to people can be, well, a trap.

Hard-headed Remy heads straight to a famous Paris restaurant, where he ends up hiding in the kitchen. This puts him in a position to rescue a clumsy apprentice named Linguini (Lou Romano) who's about to ruin the soup and his budding career.

With Remy's help, the soup is a hit, and so is Linguini, but he knows he'd be nowhere without the rat. He also knows that exposing Remy as the real chef would be the ruin of everyone - Linguini, the rat, the resurgent restaurant.

A comic highlight shows how the two arrive at a method to conceal Remy in a way that allows him to manipulate Linguini. I don't know if it's intentional, but scenes of Remy controlling Linguini's movement by pulling his hair recall the scenes of the boy riding the robot in "The Iron Giant."

It's a nice visual bit, and the movie's full of them. Still, you can see why this project initially faltered. A busy narrative must integrate the ghost of the restaurant's famous originator, who acts as Remy's conscience/sidekick and Bird's handy plot explainer. There's also a love story between Linguini and a female chef (Janeane Garofalo), and a sinister head chef (Ian Holm) who smells a rat.

Bird's ace-in-the-hole, though, his wonderful grace note, turns about to be a fellow named Anton Ego (marvelously voiced by Peter O'Toole), a Parisian restaurant critic who ultimately looms as Remy's greatest test.

At its core, "Ratatouille" is really the story of the artist and the creative impulse, of the artist's obligation to follow that impulse in the face of what friends, family, society may say. Where it leads Remy is a place past the initial euphoria of popular acceptance, and toward a day of judgment before Ego, who is judging not the food, but the art behind it.

It's rare for a filmmaker to hold such a generous view of the role of critic, and the less said about Ego's role in the story, the better.

Suffice it to say, he fares a little better than the guy in "Lady in the Water." *

Produced by Brad Lewis, directed by Brad Bird, written by Jan Pinkava and Brad Bird, music by Michael Giacchino, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures.

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