Published at: June 21, 2007, 3:19 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Sorry. I swear to god the headline will be the only example of bad cooking references in this whole review. You’ll get hit with enough of them as the positive reviews for this film keep pouring in over the next two weeks.
And believe me... the vast majority of the reviews for this one are going to be glowing. Over the moon. Madly in love. And the film deserves all of that and more.
In 1999, a banner year for film, and probably the single best year since I started at AICN, there were several genuine masterworks released, and my favorite of them was an underperforming animated film called THE IRON GIANT. In 2004, there were also a number of truly great films released, and my favorite of the year was again an animated movie about superheroes called THE INCREDIBLES. And now, with the year half over, the single best movie I’ve seen at this point is the animated story of a rat who wants to be a chef and the guy who helps him accomplish that dream. All three of these movies are from the same filmmaker, a fact that suggests to me that, in my opinion, Brad Bird is the best filmmaker working right now. Period.
Yep. High praise, indeed. But when one of our reviewers called Bird “the American Miyazaki” yesterday, I don’t think they were wrong. This is a guy who manages to make smart, entertaining films that tackle big ideas in ways that appeal both to young viewers and adults. THE IRON GIANT is just the story of a boy and his robot on the surface, but the emotional and thematic complexity of the way Bird examines the weight of the statement “I am not a gun” in that film is what makes it an enduring classic, a film we’ll still be watching and sharing and revisiting a quarter century from now. THE INCREDIBLES is “just another superhero film” on the surface, but beneath that, it’s an examination of the notion of what makes someone special, and what that means in relation to society. And now, he’s taken his unlikeliest premise and spun it into a story about following your passions, the value of criticism, and the collaborative nature of art. Heady stuff, but if you choose to ignore all of that and simply enjoy it as a great family comedy, you can. Any film that functions on dual levels like that requires a deft touch, and that’s exactly what Bird brings to it.
The film opens with Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) trying to figure out his place among his colony of rats, and it’s obvious that he doesn’t feel like he belongs with them. His sophisticated palette doesn’t allow him to indiscriminately eat garbage like his friend Emile (voiced by Peter Sohn) or his father (voiced by Brian Dennehy). But when he points out how he can smell subtle differences in things, his father puts him to work smelling all the food in the colony to check for rat poison. Remy wants more. Remy watches the world of humans and longs to be part of it. He walks on his hind legs when he’s alone so he can keep his hands clean. He learns to read. But more than anything, he longs to cook. He longs to be able to experience real food. One of my favorite early moments in the film is when Remy is eating cheese and a grape, and we see the way he experiences the tastes. Bird uses swirling abstract colors behind Remy as a way of conveying what it is that Remy is feeling, and it’s a device that reminds me of some of the old Walt Disney shorts about music. It’s also a great way to convey to kids that there are different degrees of experience. Not everything is the same. An experience like eating isn’t just about shoveling something into your mouth... it should be about all of the sensory pleasures of that experience. In our ADD-driven culture, the idea of telling people to slow down and actually savor something as simple as the taste of cheese is downright subversive, and I love the way Bird mounts his argument.
When Remy’s desire to cook causes the colony to be discovered by the woman whose farmhouse they’ve been using as home, they have to run, and Remy ends up separated from his family, alone and afraid. However, he ends up in Paris, and circumstance (and a figment of his imagination) lead him to Gusteau’s, the restaurant founded by the man Remy looks up to as a hero. Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett) was a legend, a man whose philosophy was “Anyone can cook,” and his five-star restaurant was a phenomenon in his lifetime until a bad review by Anton Ego (voiced spectacularly by Peter O’Toole) knocked one star off the rating. This broke Gusteau’s heart, and he died soon after, which knocked another star off the rating. Remy doesn’t care, though. The opportunity to observe the kitchen of the restaurant leads him to a skylight where he spies on the activity below. And if you’ve seen the nine minutes of the film online now, you know what happens next.
I don’t really want to discuss anything more of the plot of the film. Suffice it to say it does some of what you expect, then a fair amount of what you don’t. Bird doesn’t stretch things out to an unnecessary length... he dispatches some plot points fairly quickly, earlier than you’d expect. And gradually, the film reveals itself to have more on its mind than your average family animated movie. It’s in the language of the film, and even if you choose to tune a lot of it out, this works almost on a silent movie level. The animation is breathtaking, thanks in part to Sharon Calahan and Robert Anderson, the directors of photography. Bird’s always had very particular theories about great animation, and this is like a master’s class as he seems determined to push the state-of-the-art in service of truly classic storytelling.
It’s not just the level of detail (although that’s pretty mind-boggling just from a tech geek point-of-view), but also in the way Bird achieves an almost photo-real quality to so much of the film, while still featuring characters who are drawn in an exaggerated animation style. It works. You find yourself persuasively pulled into the world when you’re seeing it all from rat’s-eye-level, but the human characters are all given unexpected imperfections and emotional quirk. Linguini, Colette, and even Anton Ego strike me as more human than, say, anyone in FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, because they behave like real people. They disappoint each other, they overreact, they are insecure... it’s so easy to forget that everything you’re watching was created in a computer.
Which brings me to the food. Good god, the food. This is a mouthwatering film. It makes sense. Remy’s in love with food, so the film has to convey the tactile reality of what it is he loves. You can practically smell it when you’re in the kitchen scenes. What this really does is communicate just how much a passion means to the person possessed by it. In Remy’s case, it’s food. In my case, it’s film. In someone else’s case, it might be cars or airplanes or surfing or whatever... all that matters is understanding what it’s like to be really consumed by your love of something, to the point where you’d risk security and comfort in order to chase a dream. Bird’s movie is about defeating self-doubt. It’s about what we can accomplish as people... or rats, I suppose... if we follow those passions whole-heartedly, no matter what they cost.
There’s a scene in the film, and I won’t spoil it, which you’ll recognize as soon as you see it. A character has a moment of realization, and Bird uses a flashback to illustrate that self-realization. It’s wordless, and I can see how many people might react to it as a joke. But it really hit me as an emotional beat, so much so that unexpected tears leapt to my eyes. Just as I responded to the notion in IRON GIANT that we all have a choice about whether or not to do harm or good as we move through this life, here I was flattened by just how well Bird illustrated the way passions are born, the pleasures we pursue as we watch films or eat great meals or listen to music or whatever it is that we do for the benefit of our souls. Brad Bird gives these characters real soul. And how often do you see that in any studio filmmaking, animated or otherwise?
So often today, films are treated like product, and there’s a lot of product that I enjoy. I’m not above a spectacle for the sake of it. But every now and then, there are filmmakers who I trust to challenge me about what I believe every time they make a film, and I not only enjoy the challenge, but I think I am bettered because of it. Brad Bird’s that sort of filmmaker, and Pixar has allowed him to make two great films in a row. I hope that he returns to the studio often in the future, and I hope he continues to follow his own passion that has led him to where he is as an artist, and the same goes for all the amazing artists whose work combined to make this film so powerful. Whether it’s Michael Giacchino, whose score for the film manages to evoke classic Parisian themes, early Miles Davis, and the great lush scores of a Hollywood past, or the character design team or the invaluable contribution of the film’s original director, the great Jan Pinkava.
I give RATATOUILLE my highest recommendation, and I am excited that as my son discovers films (he’s starting to assert his tastes as we let him try things off of a toddler-safe stack), there are people working like Bird, people whose work is going to do more than just entertain... it will affect, and for the better. You’ll see for yourself (and so will I, many more times this summer) when the film opens next week.
I’ve still got at least two more reviews to write tonight. One for 1408, and one for EVAN ALMIGHTY. And then tomorrow I’m taking part in a very unusual set visit. But more on that as we approach the weekend...