[National Review Online, June 29, 2007]

My companion at the screening of Pixar’s new animation feature, “Ratatouille,” pronounced this “the best movie I’ve ever seen.” Granted, she’s only six years old, and might not have seen as many movies as you have. But she’s seen virtually every great animated movie since the genre began, from Disney’s 1937 “Snow White” till today. I think the little lady knows what she’s talking about.

“Ratatouille” is a charming, engaging, and above all *original* fantasy tale. It’s a story you haven’t heard before, which can’t be said of 90% of animated features in recent years (that 10% occupied almost exclusively by films from Pixar studios). On top of that, the animation is not just vibrantly realistic, but truly beautiful. Standards for animation art have just been raised a few notches. Many times I looked, for example, at scenes of Paris on a rainy autumn day, and thought that even a brilliant live-action director would be hard-pressed to create such shots. Many times, too, I thought “This *has* to be motion-capture, nobody could draw so perfectly.” (A “cheaters” way to make animation is by filming a scene live and then drawing over it, a technique invented in 1914 and used by Disney, among others. Last year’s “A Scanner Darkly” is a recent example of this technique, also known as rotoscoping.) But at the end of the credits there was a certificate proudly proclaiming “100% Animation”: no motion-capture or rotoscoping involved. So “Ratatouille” is a very impressive film, as well as lots of fun.

If you’ve only seen commercials for “Ratatouille,” you already know the biggest negative going for it, which is that the leading character is a rat. I don’t like rats, particularly. I don’t like looking at rats. They look ratty. Given an hour and a half in a movie theater, I’d rather look at Cary Grant (or, failing that, George Clooney). Nor do I like looking at garbage, which is what rats eat, but the filmmakers were so concerned with verisimilitude that they left 15 varieties of fruit and vegetables out to rot and used the results as a guide. These elements are used wisely, however: the rats have nice pink ears and noses, which goes well with their taupe or lavender- gray fur, and the cinema-verite garbage doesn’t linger on screen. There is no gratuitous ugliness, and, amazingly enough, no potty humor. Studios who think that it is necessary in children’s films might want to study the box office of “Ratatouille” in coming weeks. (In comparison, “Evan Almighty” dwelt on fecal matter so much that I decided not to review it at all. Good intentions only go so far when you’re compelling audiences to watch a dog squatting over turds. The director of that film, Tom Shadylac, told reporters that this material was a sign that “at my best [I] can return to childlikeness”. Call me the Princess-and-the-pea, but it isn’t. It’s just gross.)

“Ratatouille” begins by introducing the lead rat and narrator, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who has a more highly-developed sense of smell, and a stronger appreciation for flavor, than his tubby, good-natured brother and his slovenly dad. His alert nose saves the clan from eating poisoned food, and Remy is rewarded by being given the tedious duty of sniffing every morsel they eat. (Remy, by the way, has appealing green-blue fur, indicating a resemblance to Sullivan in “Monsters, Inc.” but not to actual rats, as far as I know.) Remy would love to be a master of cuisine like his hero, Chef Gusteau, the genius behind the 5-star restaurant Gusteau’s, whose slogan was “Anyone can cook!” But a cruel review by restaurant critic Anton Ego (deliciously voiced by Peter O’Toole) struck a star from Gusteau’s crown, and that broke his heart; the death of the famous chef then cost the restaurant another star. The new owner, a shrewd little half-pint named Skinner (Ian Holm), is trying to shore up fortunes by manufacturing microwaveable meals under the great chef’s name, something which would break his heart all over again.

Into the restaurant comes a gangly, self-conscious red-haired youth named Linguini, bearing a note from his mother, Renata, who it seems was an old friend of Gusteau and Skinner. (“How is she?” Skinner asks offhandedly. “Oh, fine,” says Linguini, then proceeds to stammer his way into tangles: “I mean, she died two weeks ago. But she believed in heaven. So, you know, it’s all right.”) Skinner gives Linguini a job as garbage boy.

Meanwhile, while escaping from the kitchen of an old woman with a rifle and an aversion to rats, Remy is separated from his family. He is swept down a river and winds up in the sewers of Paris—immediately under Gusteau’s, as a matter of fact. He creeps inside and is rapt with the fragrances and delicacies, but then sees Linguini, who is attempting to improve a soup, render it inedible. Just before the soup is ladled into its dish, Remy corrects the mix. It’s delicious, and Linguini is hailed as a promising young chef.

That’s the setup, but there’s more to come, new characters and situations and surprises that will keep the adults as interested as the children. The theme that the Pixar folks put forth in “The Incredibles,” that gifted people should not be held back in the name of false equality, gets further developed here: “Not everyone can be an artist, but an artist can come from anywhere.” This seems a more realistic, and ultimately more useful, lesson than the empty-headed “Just keep holding onto your dreams!” that fills most kidvid. “Ratatouille” is one more proof that, though not everyone can make an excellent animated feature, the best being made now are definitely coming from Pixar.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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