Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2007


Brad Bird knocks another one out of le park with 'Ratatouille'

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios
Director: Brad Bird
Screenplay: Brad Bird
Starring: The voices of Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Ian Holm, Peter O'Toole, Janeane Garofalo, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn and Brad Garrett
Rated G / 1 hour, 50 minutes
(out of four)

It goes without saying that most of what we've on the screen this summer - that is to say, most of the studio films and TV shows we see in any given year - are tailor-made for specific audiences, within specific genres. But Brad Bird has repeatedly broken the mold.

The animation auteur - who got his big break on The Simpsons, and was the first choice to direct the series' big-screen treatment - has repeatedly rejected the notion that animation a "genre," and his actions speak even louder than words. Like the best of animation (especially in the Pixar era), his films - he has three great ones on his resume now - cannot be lumped just into the "kids" or "family" categories. He's even moved beyond those archaic ideas of genre and target audience. (Not to say anything about the marketing, of course, which inevitably has billed Ratatouille as a children's movie and has probably lost a portion of its potential audience in the process.)

Sure, The Incredibles may have fit the bill as an action-adventure superhero cartoon, but it doubled as an unendingly clever comedy of manners and light social satire.

With his previous effort, The Iron Giant, he made a Vin Diesel-voiced robot more human than just about any robot I've ever seen captured - or any other Vin Diesel character, for that matter.

And now, with Ratatouille - a story about a rat who wants to be a cook and a would-be cook who, well, can't - he's been able to infuse some shopworn plot mechanics and character types with an uncommon level of depth and emotion. The basic story idea wasn't even Bird's to begin with. He came on board when the project was already in development. He re-wrote the script and his stamp has become clear.

As we've come to expect from Bird, his humor is sharper, his characters warmer and his visual style bolder than the standard animated fare.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat with unusually refined taste, yet he's been stuck rummaging through scraps with the rest of the rats in the neighborhood his whole life. Chance steps in one day, as he's separated from his family and happens to find himself in a restaurant, Gusteau's, that was once among the finest in France (and was owned by Remy's idol, the great chef Auguste Gusteau, who lived by the motto that "anyone can cook").

After witnessing Linguini (Lou Romano) disastrously attempting to make a soup, Remy intervenes - instinctively creating a soup of his very own making...and the customers love it. Naturally, Linguini gets the credit (quite against his will), and so a natural partnership between him and his new rodent friend begins. It's just the opportunity Remy has been waiting his whole life for!

Linguini isn't well-liked by the bistro's new owner, Skinner (Ian Holm, in an amazing voice performance, one that deserves even more accolades than the work of Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo), who [correctly] has his suspicions about Linguini - suspicions that gradually begin to drive him mad (setting up some of the most hysterical scenes in the movie). Fortunately, Linguini has an ally in his irritable/friendly Colette (Janean Garofalo), his co-worker, love interest and kitchen rival; and meanwhile, Remy lives the high life only to find himself in a battle for his loyalty - between his new friends and his old ones (his irascible father Django and clueless brother Emile).

Then, adding the obligatory sinister element to the plot, there's the stuffy food critic, Ego (Peter O'Toole), a fantastic satirical blend of arrogant English archetypes and deathly imagery. Consider the very shape of his body - hunched over and top-heavy, shaped quite deliberately like a coffin, like some sort of upper-class Nosferatu. When we see him at his home, we discover that even his lofty office is coffin-shaped. It's a brilliant bit of design on the part of Bird and his great team of animators (I wish I could list all their names).

Even the construction of the plot stands on its own. Even the key moments we expect - the moments that have to happen for the purposes of furthering the plot - are made with conviction and freshness, as if no rodent prodigy had ever gotten frustrated with not getting enough credit. As if no lovesick young kid in over his head had ever said the wrong thing, at the wrong time. It doesn't matter that this is an animated movie - the moments of emotional importance ring true.

There is a particular moment of resolution near the end that is its own little bit of genius. It comes as such a jolt - both to the characters and to the narrative - and comes so suddenly and at such a perfect time, it's one of the most shockingly delightful moments I've experienced in the theatre in a long time. This one small sequence is at once unconscionably funny and legitimately touching. There could not possibly be a more perfect way for this story to reach its conclusion.

After last year's disappointing Cars, Pixar rebounded with one of its best efforts. If I were John Lasseter, I'd pretty much give Brad Bird as much money as he wants, to do whatever movie he wants, whenever he wants. The man is an immovable force. He's directed three tremendous feature-length films - all, interestingly enough, examining characters trying to assimilate in environments in which they are not understood. You could say all three of his films are pretty thoughtful meditations on alienation (with, you know, superheros, robots and talking rats, too). Best of all, his creativity shows no signs of wear and tear. He has mastered his craft like few other filmmakers working today - and as he did in 2004 and 1999, he has made one of the best films of the year.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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