Carmike 10, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
All right, Brad Bird, I'll take the bait.
As a major character in Pixar's latest animated feature Ratatouille, director/co-writer Bird includes a food critic by the name of Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole). Ego sports prominent canine teeth and writes in a cavernous study which, when viewed from above, resembles a massive casket because critics, too, are parasitic creatures that only survive by sucking the life's-blood from others.
Merely acknowledging this nudge to the ribs of critics risks overwhelming anything a critic might actually have to say about Ratatouille. Praise for the film could suggest being cowed into submission; anything less than a rave would be evidence of thin-skinned, dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it-ness.
But while it's easy to understand M. Night Shyamalan's use of a sneering critic as a character in Lady in the Water, the decision here initially just seems baffling. The Pixar brand has been universally adored by professional critics. Bird's move here is akin to Bob Barker calling out the Humane Society.
It is entirely possible that Bird inherited the Anton Ego subplot from Jan Pinkava, who originated the project before being replaced over concerns about the story's direction. And indeed, there's a surprisingly familiar feel to the tale of Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a country rat who's convinced that his destiny isn't scavenging through garbage, but creating haute cuisine like his idol, celebrity chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). He's the latest in a long kid-entertainment line that stretches from Hermie the misfit elf to the tap-dancing penguin of Happy Feet: the be-yourself-even though-everyone-else-thinks-you're-weird protagonist.
Things get a little snappier once Remy makes his way to Paris and teams up with Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), the new cleaning boy at Gusteau's once-proud restaurant, whose luster was dimmed after a scathing Anton Ego review drove Gusteau to his grave. Alfredo wants to be a great chef but lacks much aptitude; Remy has the mad skillz but needs a sort of "host body" to put together his creations.
Bird concocts a number of terrific scenes showcasing the elaborate marionette-style process Alfredo and Remy concoct to allow the mouse to guide the man through yanks on his hair. As a kind of slapstick choreography that would have Chaplin taking notes, it positively soars.
And indeed, Ratatouille hits most of its high points when choreography is involved. Bird shows off the kind of action sequences that powered his work on The Incredibles, including Remy's treacherous journey through the sewers and a chase sequence along the Seine. Whenever Ratatouille is in motion, it feels almost as delightful as its Pixar predecessors.
Yet in other ways, it sags where other Pixar films excelled. Remy makes for a surprisingly muted hero neither his character nor Oswalt's voice performance is vibrant enough to carry the narrative. Nearly every supporting character similarly lacks a breakout presence, whether it's Alfredo, his romantic interest (Janeane Garofalo) or Remy's fellow rats. Like some of Disney's soggier fare from years past, only the villains make a strong impression: Skinner (Ian Holm), the commerce-minded restaurateur who took over for the genuinely food-loving Gusteau, and, of course, Anton Ego himself.
But, for the most part, Ratatouille marks the first occasion where a Pixar film manages to get only the visual presentation right, while serving up a recipe we've sampled many times before.