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MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Ratatouille is an animated children’s feature that centers on Rémy, a fastidious and selective creature in a rotten world who finds himself with an opportunity to assist in the very kitchen of the Paris chef who has inspired his love of food. The problem: Rémy’s a rat, and rats and restaurants haven’t gotten along well, historically speaking. The resourceful Rémy finds a way to cook that involves great risks if things go awry, and naturally, things do.

Haute Detail

Rats and restaurants finally mix
Rats and restaurants finally mix

Dedicated foodies will love the care that has clearly gone into the fictional world of Ratatouille: real-life star chef Thomas Keller of Napa’s celebrated restaurant The French Laundry consulted with the animators at Pixar on the menus and kitchen designs, and the filmmakers lavished equal care on other details, as well (making fine food look realistically good but not freakish; and making rotten food look bad in the right ways, for example). By the end, the “little chef’s” deconstructed version of ratatouille, Keller’s reinterpreted peasant dish of eggplant, peppers, squash, and tomatoes, even enraptures the creepy critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), who delivers one of the best monologues ever on the relationship between critics, artists, and the audiences they serve.

Behind the Swinging Doors

About six months ago, as part of my research for a novel I am writing, I checked out a hefty stack of books at the library that included a series of books about chefs and cooking, about what kitchens are really like behind the swinging doors; and one about Bernard L’Oiseau, the famed Paris chef who committed suicide not long after his restaurant lost two of its three Michelin Guide stars.

Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant), who wrote and directed Pixar’s new animated film, Ratatouille, must have read all the same books I did but long before I did, because all of what I read is in the screenplay: the amateur in a professional kitchen; the rapture and the hard work that fine food can inspire; and the famous chef whose restaurant slides into mediocrity (and has committed suicide, a fact that is mentioned briefly once and went right over my seven-year-old’s head).

My guess, however, is that most of the people who will see this film in this country don’t have a lot of context for this material, lacking many opportunities to go to fine restaurants. People avoid restaurants like the one portrayed in Ratatouille not only because the meals tend to be prohibitively expensive but also because eating outside their comfort zones is a stressful experience rather than an enjoyable one. Not only do I doubt this film will shift this crowd any nearer to cooking or going out for fancy foods but I also imagine all the fuss over food could mystify and befuddle those same people.

“Mom, How Do You Make a Soufflé?”

As I watched the culinary adventures of the rodent gastronome, I wondered whether Pixar’s latest, in pulling away from kid territory (cars, toys, monsters, bugs) and dipping into the world of haute cuisine, will inspire a whole new generation to pay the kind of attention to food that you can usually find only at the tables of fine restaurants and the occasional ambitious home cook. If the movie does inspire, I honestly think it will be a handful of adults who will decide to try cooking an elaborate French dish at home; but the kids will be more likely to ask their parents for a pet rat than to pick up some brie and fruit so they can do Rémy’s taste test: trying first one, then the other, and then (drumroll, please) together!

While the “anyone can cook” motif is meant to be profound and inspiring, perhaps I had already been inspired enough by that stack of books I read this past winter that this often felt more like boilerplate, inspirational stuff thrown into the story when the hero needs a boost. I had this reaction even when the advice was excellent, as when Chef Gusteau says, “Cooking is for the imaginative, the strong of heart. Only the fearless can be truly great.”

People who aren’t so enthralled by chefs and food might find the story overlong (twenty minutes before the end of the film, my six-year-old was asking me if it was over), and there are some unpleasant (some might even say horrifying) images of vast numbers of rats flowing in and out of kitchens.

If you are a foodie, however, this film is for you — just don’t see it hungry, or make a reservation at a nice French bistro for after the movie is over.

DVD Extras

The DVD version of the film contains deleted scenes, two animated shorts, and one featurette.

The three deleted scenes are roughly animated (compared with the crisp, smooth images and animation of the final film). The accompanying commentary on these scenes, by director Brad Bird, illustrates various aspects of the process of creating and refining the story.

The first animated short, “Lifted,” was shown in theaters before the feature film. It features an alien’s clumsy attempt at beaming a sleepy resident of Earth aboard his spaceship. A new animated short called “Your Friend The Rat” delivers a cutesy history of the rat and how it came to prosper and coexist with humans worldwide.

Foodies and animators alike may enjoyed the featurette “Fine Food and Film,” featuring interviews with Brad Bird and consulting chef Thomas Keller. Both Bird and Keller go into detail about the process of realizing ideas and striving for perfection. I found it very cool to see Keller’s inspired take on ratatouille, originally a peasant stew of tomatoes and squash that is here elevated to high art (and faithfully recreated in the animated film). This 14-minute segment may put kids who aren’t aspiring chefs or filmmakers right to sleep, however.

Picture and Sound

As we have come to expect of Pixar and Disney features, Ratatouille’s picture quality is crisp and clean, as is the sound. The pleasant, evocative score brings Paris to life, although some of the characters” French accents may make some of the dialogue a little challenging for young children to follow.