Brad Bird has spent most of his career making “cartoons”—a cinematic form that is afforded about as much serious artistic credibility as the slasher movie—but he deserves to be considered one of the most inspired storytellers at work in American movies. With Ratatouille, he takes the raw ingredients of an anthropomorphic-animal kiddie matinee and whips them into a heady brew about nothing less than the principles of artistic creation.
None of that should come as much surprise to anyone who saw Bird’s two previous features: The Incredibles, with its art-deco fever dream of a superhero family hiding out in suburbia, and The Iron Giant, whose titular robot turned out to be considerably more humane than the government agents hot on his trail. Like the Iron Giant, Ratatouille‘s rodent hero is a non-human unwilling to accept the role assigned to him by society.
When we first meet young Remy (Patton Oswalt), his olfactory gifts have reduced him to serving as “poison sniffer” for his garbage-foraging colony. But Remy dreams of becoming a fine French chef, and gets his chance when he lands on the doorstep of Gusteau’s,a once-grand flagship restaurant now reduced to a glorified tourist attraction. Remy’s arrival coincides with that of Linguini (Lou Romano), a bumbling kid whose cooking proves unfit even for rodent consumption. But with a little help from a certain four-legged intruder—voila! From trash heap to magnifique!
As has been widely reported, the Pixar-produced Ratatouille was begun by another director and taken over by Bird well into the development process. Yet the film is unmistakably Bird’s own, not least in its focus on the disparity between art and commerce, greatness and mediocrity. But the most provocative gesture is surely its vivid exultation of haute cuisine. It’s a slow-food movie for a fast-food nation, distributed by a company known for its McDonald’s marketing tie-ins.
Fret not, parents: Bird hasn’t made one of those hipster family films that sails over the heads of its intended audience. Ratatouille is as much a feast for the senses as it is food for thought.