Thursday, October 11, 2007

Film Review: Ratatouille

Remy is a rat. He's a rodent who spends his days sifting through garbage, trying to find something to eat. Whilst this may be a good enough existence for other rats, Remy has had the (mis)fortune of being born with a highly developed sense of smell and has become somewhat picky about what he eats and dreams of one day being able to create food for others. Following an accident which separates him from his family, Remy finds himself in Paris where he assists Linguini, a man with no discernible cooking abilities but who has landed a job at a once prominent Parisian restaurant, giving Remy the opportunity to realise his fevered dreams.

Following the cool critical reception afforded to last year's Cars, and taking into account the problems Ratatouille had in production after original director and writer Jan Pinkava left, anticipation and speculation were very high about Pixar's latest creation, a film which is based on Pixar's most beautifully bonkers concept to date; a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, despite the fact that, in the words of director Brad Bird, ''a rat is death to a restaurant, [and] a restaurant is death to a rat''. It also deals in rather abstract themes, in particular, what it means to be an artist, the madness and obsession needed to truly create something great. It also doesn't help that the main character is a rat, a species not known for its aesthetic appeal and which, cinematically, has often been consigned to villainous roles. From this, it would seem that the film would be too high-brow and high in fibre to appeal to the young audiences that animated films tend to aimed at, and would be in danger of overloading the audience's palette.

Fortunately, writer-director Bird, who already has two modern classics to his name in the form of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, took on the reigns after Pinkava's departure and now has a third modern classic to his name, delivering a film which is accessible yet incredibly intelligent, mature but not dour, and which is absolutely stunning to watch whilst also using the possibilities of CG to push artistic boundaries, not merely technical ones.

That's not to say we should discount the technical achievements of the film, no computer animated film has looked as utterly stunning as Ratatouille and it is a veritable buffet of visual splendour from beginning to end (tired of the food metaphors yet?). The film deals ably with both the small details, such as the hairs on the rats, the smallest movements of the characters to convey emotion and, more importantly, creating genuinely appetising food, as well as the bold brushstrokes. Remy's first view of Paris from a rooftop is, quite simply, awe-inspiring and shows that Pixar are true masters of animation. The city is brimming with life as people and cars bustle about and several scenes are given real atmosphere with the addition of fog, just one more of the visual delights on display.

However, let us not be distracted by the increased number of pixels on screen, the real triumph is the direction, which is some of the most dynamic and intricate seen in an animated film for quite some time. The camerawork is fluid and sleek and makes full use of the digital world the animators have created, rather than settling for the static and unimaginative direction found in the splurge of computer animated films that have appeared recently. Bird also tries to use the technology to deal with the more intangible aspects of the film, namely the problem of showing taste on screen. This is dealt with simply but effectively in a number of scenes in which taste is represented using colours and sounds, perfectly illustrating what Remy loves about food and providing a wonderful insight into his character. It's these little touches that add real depth to the film.

It also helps that the film boasts one of best scripts of any Pixar film, one which puts emphasis more on characters and the plot than gags but which does not neglect the humorous side of things, featuring as it does some very funny one liners and moments of sublime physical comedy. This is further bolstered by the cast who all put in great performances, particularly Ian Holm as the villain of the film, a diminutive and diabolical chef by the name of Skinner, and Peter O'Toole as the wonderfully named Anton Ego, a food critic who exudes menace and serves as the driving force behind the film's denouement.

It's difficult to put a finger on what exactly it is that makes Ratatouille so special. It has that indefatigable quality to it that truly wonderful films possess, and as such is difficult to sum up easily. Probably the best way of doing so can be found within the film itself. At one point in the film, a human character tries a dish which Remy has helped prepare and, upon tasting it, they are taken back to a moment when they tasted the same dish as a child. In much the same way, watching Ratatouille takes the viewer back to when they were a child and reminds them of the films they used to watch. In the case of this reviewer, it reminded me about all the classic Disney films I watched repeatedly between the ages of 4 and 12. Ratatouille induces that same sense of wonder and suspension of belief not because the images on screen are so breathtakingly beautiful (though, in case it hasn't been made abundantly clear so far, they really are gorgeous) but through the strength of the script and the story. It's only when the film demands it of us that we acknowledge the fact that the story is ridiculous, and it revels in its own mad exuberance whilst never losing sight of the fact that, at heart, it's a very sweet story about pursuing passions and dreams. With rats.

Whereas Cars felt at times like too much of a technical demo showing how many light-years ahead of the competition Pixar are technically, Ratatouille shows that no one can touch them artistically. It's lovely to look at, yet also has real heart to it, and packs in some great comedic moments whilst trying to tell a story which touches on more mature themes. It’s a film with depth and humour, which also manages to be surreal and absurd and, in short, it's a masterpiece.