Pixar’s latest release is brilliantly animated, and a lot of fun. But it does not have a clear sense of who its audience is, and families with children who are looking for the next Finding Nemo may find themselves puzzled. While it’s a classic underdog-with-an-impossible-dream story, it does not have easy characters or emotions for children to identify with or a bad guy it will be fun for them to root against.
Did I say underdog? It’s more like an under-rat. The film never really overcomes the ew-factor that it is about a rat in a kitchen.
Remy (voice of comedian Patton Oswalt) is a French rat with a dream. While his friends and family like to eat garbage (literally), he has a refined palate and a gift for food preparation. His idol is the late Auguste Gusteau (voice of Brad Garrett), a great Parisian chef and restauranteur and the author of a cookbook with the inspirational title: “Anyone Can Cook.”
Remy gets his chance when he joins forces with hapless klutz Linguni (voice of Lou Romano), recently hired to clean up in Gusteau’s restaurant only because his late mother knew Gusteau. Remy, tugging on Linguini’s hair like something between a puppeteer and a video game console, turns Linguini into the most celebrated chef in Paris. But challenges remain — Skinner (voice of Ian Holm), who wants Gusteau’s for himself so he can promote his horrible frozen foods, and Anton Ego (voice of Peter O’Toole), the critic whose devastating reviews can ruin even the most popular restaurant. Then there is Colette (voice of Janeane Garofalo), the only woman chef in the kitchen, scary as a supervisor and even more terrifying when Linguini thinks he might kind of…like her.
The animation is, even by Pixar standards, spectacularly dazzling. Pixar’s early films compensated for the limited technology for facial expressions and gestures by making the characters have, well, limited facial expressions and gestures. Those films were about plastic toys, insects, and monsters. But in this film, the line between humans and computer animation all but dissolves. The movements and gestures are exquisitely orchestrated. Nothing could be more expressive than the thousand different shrugs of a Frenchman, and this movie has them all. Every millimeter of every raised eyebrow is an Oscar-worthy performance, acting through pixels.
A chase through the restaurant kitchen and an escape through the sewer system are filled with a level of mastery of three-dimensional space and detail that will be even more entertaining on DVD, when you can hit the pause button. Surfaces are brilliantly realized, textures, reflections, colors all as meticulously and imaginatively rendered as Remy’s greatest culinary masterpieces. Real copper wishes it could be as coppery as the bottoms of the pans in Gusteau’s kitchen. And the food! It shimmers. It glistens. It entices. You’d swear you could inhale its fragrance, almost taste that rosemary and saffron.
And the rats! They are so…rat-like. No anthropormorphized Jiminy Crickets or Gus-Gus and Jacques for Disney this time. Remy looks like a rat, and, charming as his personality may be, it is at times difficult to get over that whole rats-don’t-belong-in-a-kitchen thing.
It evokes passion and creativity well, but the film is over-plotted and parts of the story will be unappealing or confusing for children, including a DNA test to determine paternity. Compare the idea of a critic as bad guy to the inspired choices of previous Pixar films, the cluelessly destructive little girl in “Nemo” or the resentful rejected sidekick in “The Incredibles.” Next to those, a food critic (named “Ego,” get it?) who looks like a caricature of Richard Nixon and confesses that his most brilliant review is nothing next to the most mediocre work of art seems like too much in-joke and too little comedy or threat. The script is one part of this recipe that could have used a little less seasoning.
NOTE: The short animated film at the beginning of the movie is priceless, the funniest five minutes on screen this year. Don’t miss it.
Parents should know that there is some G-rated peril, including a gun, that may be too intense for the youngest and most sensitive viewers. A character slaps another. There are brief jokes about criminal activities, bribing someone, and “messing around,” and a reference to a dead mother and a father who was never told he had a son. There is a brief shot of dead rats. Characters drink wine and one gets another drunk. There are references to an off-screen death and a character is an apparent ghost. There is a kiss and a brief bare tush and a portion of the plot focuses on mild references to a secret out of wedlock child and to DNA testing to determine paternity. A strength of the movie is its references to prejudice and the importance of giving everyone an opportunity.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we can determine our own futures and interests, even when they seem inconsistent with our backgrounds. They should talk about their favorite flavors and cooking experiences. What are some of the foods that bring back some of your favorite memories? Families might want to learn more about some of the seasonings mentioned in the film like rosemary and saffron and try cooking with them. They might even like to try making some ratatouille.
Families who enjoy this film will enjoy the other Pixar movies, including Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and A Bug’s Life. They will also enjoy the other films from writer-director Brad Bird, The Iron Giant and Pixar’s The Incredibles. Flushed Away is another delightful animated film with a rat hero and a rat heroine as well. Older viewers will enjoy some other films about great food, including Babette’s Feast, Big Night, and Simply Irresistible. And note that John Ratzenberger, who has provided voice talent for every Pixar movie, appears in this film as Mustafa.