The ads for the ravishing new Disney/Pixar feature "Ratatouille" spell out the titular dish phonetically (as rat-a-too-ee), a tactic not necessary in last summer's marketing and promotion of "Cars." This provides a clue as to why writer-director Brad Bird's story, about a sweet aesthete of a rat who dreams of becoming a chef, may not be in for "Cars"-type action at the box office.
Well, there's no justice in the world. "Ratatouille" may be rated G, but its sense of humor is more sly, more sophisticated and more interesting than most PG-13 or R-rated comedies at the moment. The film may be animated, and largely taken up with rats, but its pulse is gratifyingly human. And you have never seen a computer-animated feature with this sort of visual panache and detail.
The film is also unexpectedly moving in the way it unites all its major characters in their passion for food and the warm feelings that come with it. Bird and his sterling collaborators have created something wholly new here. It's the haute cuisine of contemporary animation. Plus it's crazy about Paris, the way films such as "Funny Face" were crazy about Paris, and rarely have you glimpsed more supple and detailed images of a great city and its eccentric inhabitants.
"Ratatouille" is a tale of two young males learning to grow up and make their way in their respective worlds, which intersect in clever ways. Remy the rat lives in the French provinces with his dad, Django, his brother, Emile, and extended rat clan. The young rat's rarified nose and highly developed palate ("I know what this needs! Saffron!") serve the family well in the role of poison detector.
A food-finding mission takes the rats into a shotgun-wielding woman's farmhouse, to tense results. After shooting the rapids of a nearby river — an exciting scene, and not merely in the I'll-wait-for-the-video-game "Flushed Away" way — Remy is separated from his loved ones and finds himself in the City of Light. The famous deceased chef Gusteau appears to Remy in Tinkerbell-like form, guiding him along until Gusteau, and Fate, plunk Remy into the very kitchen of Gusteau's restaurant, a former five-star landmark fallen on hard times.
The way Remy makes his bones working in the big leagues is one thread of the "Ratatouille" story line. Another concerns his relationship with a young twentysomething human named Linguini, a hapless new restaurant employee with a mysterious connection to the founder. Linguini's reluctant mentor in the kitchen is Colette, the sole female in a kitchen full of rough characters. Quite by accident, Remy turns his human surrogate Linguini into a marionette-like conduit for his culinary magic.
The comic set pieces are very impressive, but it's the way Remy cooks his new pal an omelette early one morning at Linguini's apartment that gives "Ratatouille" its heart. This is a busy film that nonetheless knows how to take time for the little things. It is, after all, French.
Younger audiences may have a difficult time tracking the Linguini part of the narrative, which has to do with a contested will and the machinations of the head chef, Skinner, who resembles a pint-size Akim Tamiroff. Writer-director Bird errs, I think, in making Linguini such a clod. Also, he's not memorably voiced; Lou Romano simply isn't in the league of his grade-A colleagues, spanning everyone from Patton Oswalt as Remy (sounding like a rapturous Wallace Shawn) to Brian Dennehy's papa rat to Brad Garrett's Gusteau to Janeane Garofalo's Colette, who always seems to be on the verge of smackng Linguini around. (The movie is encoded to make little boys fall in love with surly French women with fantastic haircuts.) Ian Holm has a sniveling ball voicing Skinner. Best of all is Peter O'Toole as the viciously influential restaurant critic Anton Ego. Ego's Scrooge-like thawing near story's end provides the film with its delightful and slightly bittersweet coda.
In Bird's previous and highly kinetic feature, "The Incredibles," composer Michael Giacchino whipped up one witty variation on James Bond-style espionage themes after another. To "Ratatouille" Giacchino contributes the most delightful musical score of the year. His delicate, nimble flute theme for Remy (like Jean-Pierre Rampal on uppers) captures the hectic pace of a rat's life, and there's a genuinely rhapsodic swell of feeling in the way the orchestral music augments the rooftop view from Linguini's tiny apartment, as seen through the eyes of Remy.
Without getting too serious about imparting a lecture on the subject of tolerance and understanding, "Ratatouille" hits on something most every kid feels at some point in her or his life: the attraction of a new world, a new chapter, a universe previously unexplored, preferably one with fresh spices and an eight-burner stove. Early on a horrified Skinner orders Linguini to dispose of Remy lest the restaurant attract unwanted attention from the health inspector. On the banks of the Seine, trapped in a glass jar, Remy wordlessly entreats Linguini to save him. Slowly the young man realizes that the rat understands what he's saying. He asks Remy if he can cook. The way in which the rat responds — with a shrug and a look of sheepish but unmistakable pride in his abilities — cements the emotional core of the picture. Such fleeting moments make "Ratatouille" special.
Too special for a huge international audience? Maybe. Maybe not.
While 6-year-olds may not get jokes targeting Skinner's overly aggressive exploitation of the Gusteau brand, they just may respond to a film of unusual delicacy and surprise. As a bonus the end credits are terrific, too, done in a style of animation (two-dimensional '60s, with a dash of Ronald Searle) a world apart from the feature itself.
"Ratatouille" is preceded by a very funny "Monsters, Inc."-y short called "Lifted," in which a young alien attempts to beam a sleeping human aboard his spacecraft. The film's comic design has little in common with the feature following it, but for its exceptional quality.