Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava, 2007
Roger Ebert: 4 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
My Official Preconception: I believe this is an animated feature about a rat who wants to cook. Sounds dreadful.
I am pleased to report that Ratatouille, despite being an animated feature about a rat who wants to cook, is not dreadful. If you have a child who requires to be taken out to a certain number of animated features as part of the socialization process, or who can be effectively incapacitated by the in-home viewing of such features, this is exactly the kind of product you need, carefully crafted to amuse the adult mind while absolutely blowing their childrens'.
Now, the last few decades have given us a number of animated movies that transcend the bearable-to-parents concept to become worth seeing even to unencumbered types such as myself and Mrs.5000. I hardly need to list them: Shrek, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, and the quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox, and probably Toy Story, although it's been so long since that one came down the pike that I don't really remember it very well. Ratatouille thinks it is in this class, but it ain't. It lacks the elegance, wit, panache, and/or verve of all of the above. Its plot is a grab-bag contrivance for linking together scenes, rather than a coherent story in its own right, and -- amazingly, for a movie about a rat in a restaurant kitchen -- it fails to sound the slightest subversive note, feeding us instead the approved Disney platitudes about friendship, family, following one's dream, and how shocking acts of vindictiveness towards your loved ones can always be patched up a while later with a big hug, once you've all learned your lessons. Yawn.
To be sure, there are plenty of nice moments, the best of which is when the eponymous ratatouille triggers in a mean old food critic a Proustian memory of his forgotten happy childhood. The love story, or at least the growing sexual attraction, between the two leading humans is kind of fun. But the go-to gag, the jerks and ticks of a human being driven like a backhoe by a rat pulling on his hair, is pretty weak. Humans don't actually jerk around involuntarily in response to tugs on their scalp, so the situation is a little too artificial, even for a cartoon, to be very funny. That the animators clearly think it's the best gag since the pratfall doesn't help matters any.
It would not be a lukewarm Michael5000 review without a list of annoyances, and indeed I wish to mention three. The most egregious is the movie's smug stand against crass commercialism -- the new, bad chef is using the late, good chef's image to market a line of frozen and convenience foods. This is presented as a self-evidently evil and reprehensible act. Now, I'm as against crass commercialism as the next guy, but to be lectured on this topic by the Walt Disney Corporation is like sitting through an anger management class taught by Yosemite Sam. It's quite disgusting, actually.
Secondly, the evil food critic. Give him one tasty dinner and he renounces his foul deeds, writing
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.This is horseshit, of course, and to present it as a gem of wisdom achieved in a revelatory moment after a lifetime of experience does nothing but flatter that part of us that wants to be pandered to, that wants to watch or read or listen to the least challenging crap available without being bothered by the potentially challenging opinions of others. That's the kind of thinking that torpedoes whatever dialog we might hope to get going about our culture.
My third annoyance is that the 1986 UB40 hit "Rat in Mi Kitchen" was nowhere in evidence on the soundtrack. I consider this a sadly missed opportunity, and can only imagine that something went terribly wrong in the relevant negotiations.
Prognosis: * * 1/2. A flawed but moderately entertaining example of the cartoonist's craft.