A rat in the kitchen: to most people, that would be awful, but in the animated world of the new film from Disney's Pixar Studios and director Brad Bird, it can be a wonderful thing for the whole family. Alan Silverman has a look at Ratatouille.
Just as "Ratatouille" can be more than just a hearty French vegetable stew, Remy is no ordinary rat. While his family and the rest of the colony scramble for scraps, Remy savors every bite.
Sneaking into a kitchen at night, Remy heads right for the spice rack, fascinated by the subtleties of aroma and flavor.
A sudden turn of events and a madcap ride downriver (actually, through the fabled sewers of Paris) and Remy is deposited at the kitchen door of the once great Gusteau's restaurant where he finds himself guided (or, perhaps, haunted) by the spirit of the late chef as he sees the lowly clean-up boy, named Linguini, starting to tinker with a boiling pot.
Unable to stop himself, Remy secretly adds just the right herbs and spices, turning what could have been gastronomic disaster into a culinary triumph. When Linguini discovers what happened ...and, to his amazement, that the rat can understand him ...he comes up with a plan.
With Remy hidden under his toque tall chef's hat, Linguini becomes the new master chef; but, of course, it has to be their secret.
"Initially everybody says 'oh, that's funny ...' and then they go 'ugh,' " says writer and director Brad Bird, who created the Oscar-winning Pixar hit The Incredibles. Bird says he loved the Ratatouille story originally written by his colleague Jan Pinkava; but Bird also knew that, even in animation, a rat in the kitchen could be a tough sell.
"When the the film was being developed before I got involved they had dealt with that by making the rats like little humans," he says. "They had shortened the tails and gotten them up on two legs. They were as 'un-ratty' as possible. I thought that was a mistake and I wanted them to go back in the other direction. We put them on four legs and lengthened the tails and tried to study rat-like behavior because I thought if you can push past that it becomes a deeper film. Like Hunchback of Notre Dame or Frankenstein, we have aversion to the character at the beginning and then we see past it.
Comic actor Patton Oswalt worked with the animators to create the voice and personality of Remy and he jokes that studying 'rat-like' behavior was no help at all.
"I remember I was in a pet store buying food for my dog and I saw some rats in cages. I thought 'I should go over and look at them.' Then I thought 'what, am I [Robert] DeNiro? I'm not going to learn anything from looking at these rats.' It has nothing to do with being a rat, so I just avoided that altogether," he says.
"He is just non-judgmentally enthusiastic about what he loves," Oswalt says. " I think a lot of people tend to hedge their bets: 'what am I going to be enthusiastic about? Is this cool? Is this the thing now?' he just loves what he loves. In spite of his parents' indifference and the human world's violence against it, that's what he loves and that's what he's going to do. I really like that.
In what has become a Pixar tradition, Ratatouille sparkles with visual excitement and the latest innovations in computer animation; but director Bird says the philosophy is that the technology must be just a tool to help tell the story.
"Our goal is not reality. It is believability. The goal is to get the feeling of something," says Bird. "Our goal not the exact reproduction of Paris, although you probably could do that; it is to get the feeling of being in Paris. That said, the tools are always developing and we 'push the envelope' on them and I'm very happy that people are remarking about the feeling of this film because our goal was to make something lush and have the food look good. The computer really doesn't want to do any of that stuff. It wants to do gleaming plastic cubes in perfect voids. All that imperfection and patina that you see on everything has to be put in there and thought about. It's a lot of work.
Ratatouille also features the voices of Lou Romano, Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo and Peter O'Toole (as a bitter restaurant critic named 'Ego'). The exuberant, French-tinged musical score is by Michael Giacchino.