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Animated comedy draws on tradition and technology in equal measures

By Drew Halfnight

Directed by Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava

When it comes to animated feature-film fare, I’ve always been a picky eater.

If the American releases from The Lion King onward were, say, a multi-course meal, I’d have quietly and carefully disgorged most of them into a napkin.

But Pixar’s Ratatouille, the fanciful tale of rat-gourmand Remy’s trip to the top of the Paris food chain, is a morsel that I’m certain will go down as one of the best animated comedies ever.

For if animation has been a bit confused lately — unsure how to reconcile its digital present with its ink-and-paper past — Ratatouille draws on tradition and technology in equal measures to achieve a technically innovative yet deliciously warm, honest sort of picture.

The story’s hero is Remy, a rat with a preternatural sense of smell. Inspired by the populist message of philosopher-chef Gustave Gusteau (“Anyone can cook!”), Remy parts ways with his garbage-thieving clan to learn cookery from the best at Gusteau’s restaurant in the heart of Paris.

Though he finds his mentor has died following a withering review by food critic Anton Ego (masterfully voiced by Peter O’Toole), Remy teams up with noodle-necked garbage boy Linguini and, by a precious conceit that I won’t spoil for you, begins playing chef to the Paris elite.

One key to Ratatouille’s success is its loving rendition of place. After so many digital animations set in scrubbed suburbs and nameless tropics, Ratatouille returns us to a rich, gothic netherworld of sewers and crawl spaces that owes much to Don Bluth’s NIMH and Fievel movies. The controlled chaos of the professional kitchen is not just seen but felt, and the enchanting evocation of Paris — night on the banks of the Seine, an atelier in Montmartre overlooking the Eiffel Tower — rivals genius animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Victorian creations.

As for the animation quality, it’s Pixar’s best yet, with thrilling rat’s-eye-view action sequences, marvellous work on hair and fur, and of course, tender cheeses, firm grapes and leafy herbs you can almost taste and smell.

Fine food stands for the transformative power of love in this film — whether it’s striving to respect oneself by resisting a garbage diet, learning to value the cooking genius of others, or embracing “the new,” as Ego calls it, over received dishes — the measure of rats and humans alike in Ratatouille is their willingness to live and love in humble service of a more perfect cuisine.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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