Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Rapture of "Ratatouille"

To begin with, I am a devoted fan of director Brad Bird, so this can't be an objective review. I have seen it twice now and might go once more before the movie is removed from theaters ahead of its DVD release. I was in Paris just once, back in 1969, and it was a disheartening experience. The city looked gray and dirty and the Eiffel Tower a rusty brown. (I have since learned the tower is painted three shades of brown, from lighter to darker, in distinct thirds, as you move from bottom to top. The gradations are designed to appeal to the eye so that the tower is darker and therefore more distinct against the sky.). I digress, which is the signature of bloggers everywhere.

"Ratatouille" presents Paris as a confection of spun sugar and neon-bright colors. The sunsets are an explosion of pinks and violets that don't really exist in nature, but then you'll never find a rat with the rarified palate of the film's star, Remy. If you don't know the story at all, it concerns the adventures of Remy and his search for a place in the universe, preferably a kitchen, where he can practice his growing expertise as a chef. The movie unfolds with Remy landing in the restaurant bearing the name of his hero and mentor, Chef Gustave. Gustave's motto is "anyone can cook." This is the most democratic approach to cooking since Betty Crocker and her eponymous cookbook. Remy teams up with the charming but inept restaurant custodian, Linguini, who has the backbone and physicality of a wet noodle. Where Bird excels as a director of these animated wonders is in giving us a geography of the place. The layout of the restaurant kitchen is introduced both in a sort of classroom primer and in a death-defying race that nearly flambes the pint-size hero. The associated dangers that a rat encounters in this upscale eatery kitchen are real because the setting is made real. The corners are sharp, the oven hot and dessert cart wheels will flatten anything in their path.

There's a sly tip of the chef's toque to the classic romantic comedy "Cyrano de Bergerac," with Remy stowed in his partner's hat and steering him through classic French cooking lessons as well as lessons in love. All it takes is a strategic tug on the lad's hair. There's also a skewering of contemporary food marketing with the notion that anything with Gustave's name plastered on it can be sold as a frozen entree. (Shades of celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and his sudden enthusiasm for Bertolli frozen dinners.) What's refreshing about "Ratatouille," aside from bearing a name that required a pronunciation lesson in the ads, is that this story is wholly original. It's a movie a foodie will love and small fry will adore. And Peter O'Toole will never have to apologize for voicing a food critic who can drip with sarcasm the way a frypan leaves its greasy entrails on a shiny linoleum floor. He casts shadows like a J.K. Rowling "death-eater," but is redeemed and reformed by a simple act of courage. Anyone can cook, indeed. But few can direct with as much inspiration as Brad Bird.

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