Bruised Ego

Salt Lake City Weekly | June 19, 2007
All right, Brad Bird, I'll take the bait. As a major character in Pixar’s latest animated feature Ratatouille, director/co-writer Bird includes a food critic by the name of Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole). Ego sports prominent canine teeth and writes in a cavernous study which, when viewed from above, resembles a massive casket -- because critics, too, are parasitic creatures that only survive by sucking the life's-blood from others. He expresses outrage that something he has deemed unworthy of attention is garnering praise. And in the end, Ego acknowledges that his work isn't even as valuable as a mediocre example of that about which he opines.

Merely acknowledging this nudge to the ribs of critics risks overwhelming anything a critic might actually have to say about Ratatouille. Praise for the film could suggest being cowed into submission; anything less than a rave would be evidence of thin-skinned dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it-ness. But while it's easy to understand M. Night Shyamalan's use of a sneering critic as a character in Lady in the Water, the decision here initially just seems baffling. Not even Iranian cinema has been as universally adored by professional critics as the Pixar brand. It's like Bob Barker calling out the Humane Society.

It is entirely possible that Bird inherited the Anton Ego sub-plot from Jan Pinkava, who originated the project before being replaced over concerns about the story's direction. And indeed, there's a surprisingly familiar feel to the tale of Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a country rat who's convinced that his destiny isn't scavenging through garbage, but creating haute cuisine like his idol, celebrity chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). He's the latest in a long kid-entertainment line that stretches from Hermie the misfit elf to the tap-dancing penguin of Happy Feet: the "be yourself even though everyone else thinks you're weird" protagonist.

Things get a little snappier once Remy makes his way to Paris, and teams up with Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), the new cleaning boy at Gusteau's once-proud restaurant, its luster dimmed after a scathing Anton Ego review drove Gusteau to his grave. Alfredo wants to be a great chef, but lacks much aptitude; Remy has the mad skillz, but needs a sort of "host body" to put together his creations. Bird concocts a number of terrific scenes showcasing the elaborate marionette-style process Alfredo and Remy concoct to allow the mouse to guide the man through yanks on his hair. As a kind of slapstick choreography that would have Chaplin taking notes, it positively soars.

And indeed, Ratatouille hits most of its high points when choreography is involved. Bird shows off the kind of action sequences that powered his work on The Incredibles, including Remy's treacherous journey through the sewers and a chase sequence along the Seine. Whenever Ratatouille is in motion, it feels almost as delightful as its Pixar predecessors.

Yet in other ways, it sags where other Pixar films excelled. Remy makes for a surprisingly muted hero, neither his character nor Oswalt's voice performance ever vibrant enough to carry the narrative. Nearly every supporting character similarly lacks a breakout presence, whether it's Alfredo, his romantic interest (Janeane Garofalo), or Remy's fellow rats. Like some of Disney's soggier fare from years past, only the villains make a strong impression: Skinner (Ian Holm), the commerce-minded restaurateur who took over for the genuinely food-loving Gusteau; and, of course, Anton Ego himself.

Both those antagonists play into Ratatouille's big-picture theme, described by Bird in a Time magazine interview as the difference between "givers and takers" in the realm of art. He manages to give that idea humorous spins, though it's hard not to see a certain irony in a Disney project chiding Skinner for his forced attempts at marketing his restaurant's brand-name through fast food. Meanwhile, he attempts a last-minute redemption of Ego by having him admit that the one true value of a critic is "the defense and discovery of the new." Which, I suppose, makes Bird's willingness to mock critics this time around a bit more understandable: Ratatouille marks the first occasion where a Pixar film manages to get only the visual presentation right, while serving up a recipe we've sampled many times before.


**1/2 (two and a half out of four stars)

Voices: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Ian Holm.

Directed by Brad Bird

Rated G

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