You'll smell a . . . terrific 'toon, starring a rat

Posted: June 29, 2007

Maybe it's because his hue is blue, or because he can whip up a meal that would make Georges Perrier proud, or because he's a cartoon - hmm, that's probably it - but Remy, the little rat who stars in the big, beautiful, funny Ratatouille, isn't gross at all. In fact, he's adorable.

And adept: Remy can cook circles around most humans, and he does so in this brilliant computer-animated affair. The tale of a scrappy dreamer with the instincts of a master chef, Ratatouille, set in a vibrant, Jacques Tati-inspired Paris full of colorful old bikes, scooters and cars, comes from animator Brad Bird. In 1999, Bird released The Iron Giant, the traditionally drawn gem about a boy and his intergalactic robot. In 2005, he won an Oscar for The Incredibles, his hilarious digital 'toon featuring the adventures of a misfit family of superheroes.

With Ratatouille, Bird once again delivers not just a great, witty story, but dazzling visuals as well. The characters (animal, and human) and the settings (humble country kitchens, an elegant Paris eatery) are rendered with the style and flair of vintage cartoon classics, but with the wild, wheeling POVs and depth and dimension that are the hallmark of digital animation, too. Bird really is one of the best in the business.

Like Robert Lawson's gradeschool best seller Ben and Me, in which a resourceful colonial mouse helps Founding Father Ben Franklin with his inventions, Ratatouille is a tale of interspecies friendship and inspiration. Remy (the voice of Patton Oswalt), once in Paris, meets a goofy redheaded kid, Linguini (Lou Romano), who has gone to work at the gourmet landmark named for its famous chef Auguste Gusteau.

Linguini is a lowly busboy, scrubbing the pans and taking out the trash, but with Remy's assistance, and insistence, Linguini starts adding dollops of herbs, splashes of spices, to the soups and side dishes. Patrons are wowed, and soon Linguini is given more responsibility, to the chagrin of pretty sous chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo), and the restaurant's nasty-tempered top toque, Skinner (Ian Holm).

In reality, of course, it is Remy creating the culinary art. But who's going to believe a rat is capable of such delectable fare? And who would eat it if they knew a rat, with its icky paws and creepy tail, was the source of the sauce? Gusteau's would be closed, the food world shocked.

With a clever chase sequence along the banks of the Seine River, with kitchen scenes as cinematic (and hunger-inducing) as anything in the live-action gastronomic hits Babette's Feast and Big Night, with a script that plays to both kids and adults without pandering to either, Ratatouille is simply grand. Yes, there are choppy bits, where the pacing lags, and sags, and transitions hit a bump, but who's complaining?

All Bird needs to do is go for a closeup of "little chef" Remy, his pink ears pricked up proudly, his nose sniffing busily away, and audiences will melt - like a cheese flambé.


Ratatouille ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Brad Bird, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Remy....................................................................... Patton Oswalt

Skinner. . . Ian Holm

Linguini. . . Lou Romano

Colette................................................................Janeane Garofalo

Anton Ego. . . Peter O'Toole

Parent's guide: G (cartoon mayhem)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@philly

news.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

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