Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
Kitchens and rats: they are not exactly the key elements to a sumptuous dinner date. In Brad Bird's imagination though, they exactly are the ingredients, not only to a vibrantly colorful and equally tasty ratatouille (a peasant dish), but also to a lovely CGI-crafted film.
His dreamer of a rat Remy (Patton Oswalt) first discovers his heightened sense of smell which his rat colony uses to determine if the trash they're eating are poisoned or not. His dreams are bigger: armed with inspiration from chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) and his recipe book aptly titled Anyone Can Cook, he finds his way to Paris and in the hands of talentless garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), who using his rodent pal, concocts delicious recipes that start bringing attention to their neglected restaurant.
The computer-manufactured visuals are spectacular. I've never thought pixels can be this mouth-watering and good enough to eat. Bird clearly takes his subject quite seriously. Food for him is not a mere gimmick (the same way fairy tales, automobiles, surfing, and the ice age are for similarly animated pics), but is one of the many cores of his film. The film's basic knowledge of the workings of a professional kitchen is more than adequate (I predict children would brush off the several classifications of chefs, and processes, and spices that the film's vocabulary is so familiar with, and just go along for the several well-directed rat rides through, under, and over the several kitchen implements). Mixed with Bird's fetish with mating the ordinary with the extraordinary (the same way he colors a kid's coming of age with the arrival of a giant robot, or suburban family woes with super powers and larger-than-life world-saving missions), Ratatouille comes out entirely magical (which makes it a far more satisfying celebration of Paris than the omnibus Paris, Je T'aime (2006)).
As with all of Bird's films, Ratatouille is clearly much more than jokes (which are almost entirely funny in the non-American sort of way; Bird's humor earns a more worthwhile laugh --- a bumbling idiot unable to declare love in front of his romantic interest is more inherently funny than any American pop culture reference) and spectacle. This film has a genuine heart. The simple yet fragile friendship between the gullible young chef and the rat is threatened by the chef's blossoming admiration for his strong-willed senior (Janeane Garofalo) and the rat's duties to his family and its natural inclinations for scavenging. Bird paints these whimsical links with gorgeous candor --- that nice brewing of pseudo-romantic fluff and Parisian wonder when the boy and his rat initiate their fated collaboration in the banks of the Seine is a sequence to behold; something that curiously belongs to the end of thousands of romances set in Paris but fits quite well in the middle of this family film.
The most poignant character, however, and the one with the most moving transformation is food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), who destroyed Gusteau's food empire with a relentless stroke of his heartless pen. Basically, he provides the film with the fuel that allowed it to transcend its genre. Instead of merely becoming a finely crafted Pixar film, Anton Ego grounds the film with a theme that is delivered in a speech (more accurately a read capsule review) emotionally delivered by O'Toole. Somehow, the fantabulously crafted relationships of the characters are overshadowed by the melting melancholy and instant coloration of the seemingly heartless critic. It took me by surprise; that accuracy (almost equal to Bird's acquired proficiency with the culinary arts) and deep understanding so succinctly spoken with admirable and timeless grace by O'Toole gives the oft-maligned critic (of all kinds, mind you) a formidable raison d'etre and a revealed heart.
I am very impressed with Bird. He is turning out to be America's best animation director. His three feature films prove that his storytelling isn't satisfied with fantastical plot outlines or characters drawn out of mere whim and blank imagination. There is always pertinent substance in his films; substance that aren't particular with social or cultural milieus (the Cold War-era America of The Iron Giant (1999) and the alternate universe corporate modernity of The Incredibles (2004)), but are completely universal. Ratatouille is an American film set in the French capital with characters ranging from an intellectual snob to a lowly sewer rat, yet its message cuts across all boundaries established by culture or species. Undoubtedly, this is the best thing that came out of this sequel-riddled and robot-infatuated summer.