Given that the world's first animation empire was built by a mouse, it's only fitting that digital studio Pixar should restore its fortunes with a rodent. Pixar's unbroken run of brilliance stalled with last year's strident, over-tooled Cars, but its new film Ratatouille finds the old genius revived, under the aegis of writer-director Brad Bird. He directed the studio's sublime The Incredibles, and before that the Warner Bros. feature The Iron Giant, one of the last triumphs of traditional drawn animation.
After Cars' screeching Americana, it seems appropriate that writer-director Bird and co-director Jan Pinkava should look to Europe for inspiration and sanity. They find it in Paris and French cuisine: Ratatouille's hero is Remy, a country rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) whose preternatural powers of taste and scent lead him to dreams of being a master chef.
The story is among Pixar's simplest, but it's effective: Remy finds his way into a Paris kitchen, the domain of the late French chef Auguste Gusteau (that anagrammatical play is typical of the film's literate wit), whose anti-elitist motto was "Anyone Can Cook". In fact, the first human that Remy meets – novice kitchen boy Linguini (Lou Romano) – can't cook, and can barely wash up, for that matter. Remy hides under Linguini's hat, yanks his hair like puppet strings, and has him concoct a soup destined to restore Gusteau's failing establishment to its former glory.
Complications set in: success goes to Linguini's head; a villainous plot by Gusteau's successor Skinner (Ian Holm) is foiled with the aid of the rat community, and the cause of Gallic culinary discernment is eagerly promoted. Remy turns his nose up at generic rubbish scrapings, and urges his whiskery family to do the same, espousing instead the merits of a nicely grilled mushroom with fresh cheese and a peck of rosemary.
This advocacy of fastidiousness might strike one as a bit rich from a company that's now a subsidiary of Disney, a corporation that has done more than most to promote the junkiest of American values for nearly a century. But no one has ever accused Pixar's values, aesthetic or ideological, of being identical with Disney's. Not only is Ratatouille made with evident sincerity, it displays the same perfectionism that has been Pixar's byword from the start. The film's Europhilia and gastrophilia (there's been some proper research into haute cuisine and the mechanics of kitchen life) have the tang of genuine relish; even the odd predictable off-the-peg Gallicism barely rankles. There's even a subplot that suggests a sly attack on the Disneyfication of culinary values, with Skinner traducing the Gusteau tradition by marketing a range of international ready meals: Microwave Burritos, Haggis Bites, Chopsocky Pockets.
The narrative will delight the section of its audience that would be quite happy to chomp on Turkey Twizzlers (and their cinematic equivalent) till the age of majority, but the story is not Ratatouille's prime strength. Nor is the characterisation, which comes nowhere near the finesse of Pixar's best: Monsters, Inc, The Incredibles and the Toy Story diptych. The rats, big-eyed, bulb-nosed and twitchy, are basically just 3D cartoon rats – though the fur and translucent pink ears are really something. And the humans, while they look terrific, are broad types: goofy youth, feisty chick, sneering villain, snooty sepulchral food critic (with glacially lofty voicing by Peter O'Toole).
But once again, what will thrill digital aesthetes – and this is why you should see Ratatouille on a big screen – is Pixar's mastery of texture and plasticity. If you want delicacy and beauty in the cinema image, look at the perfect mapping of a provincial kitchen, with all the little scratches on a wooden cupboard; at Skinner's powdery pencil moustache; at the grubby crispness of singed rat fur; at the dead-on evocation of weight and motion in everything from the rush of water through drains to the lazy flop of pages in a water-damaged recipe book.
It may seem perverse talking this way about what are basically deluxe kids' cartoons, yet Pixar seems to address the aesthete overtly in Ratatouille's adventurous tastes. Trying to dissuade the other rats from indiscriminate debris-guzzling ("No brother of mine eats rejectimenta in this town!"), Remy preaches a gospel of quality and combination, showing how to transform a dish magically with a dash of the right spice.
His gourmet ecstasy comes alive in sequences of bizarre synaesthesia, as his hyper-refined taste buds produce swirls of imagined light that shimmy around him. The film's own experiments in this vein emerge, say, in the glow of golden sun through a freshly broken baguette, crunched just so. In such moments, the film tips us off to its own functioning, implicitly comparing the joy of making animation to that of cooking: it shows us how CGI at its most magical depends on the right combination of sound and light, colour and movement, the exact sprinkling of pixels. At one moment, I glimpsed a tiny, fleeting flash of blue in the bristle of Remy's fur: it was like detecting a soupçon of saffron in a risotto.
Much fun is had with hordes of rodents invading the kitchen, then hiding out in holey cheese, in egg boxes, amid coffee grains. You may wonder how the film deals with the inevitable hygiene issue, and how it manages to stop us from gagging altogether over Remy and his friends. Very simply: these rats don't have proper claws, just four pink humanoid fingers. They have hands, in fact, that are clearly evolved from the white gloves of Mickey Mouse. But, given that the film revives the brio of Disney animation at its long-lost prime, it's hard to object. Ratatouille is a wonderfully unformulaic film, and it's quite appropriate that its final words are "surprise me".
Further reading 'To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios' by Karen Paik and Leslie IwerksReuse content