Riotous fun with Pixar's fabulous foody rat

2008-10-02 08:05

THERE'S animation, and then there's Pixar animation, standing head and furry shoulders above the pack. Ever since the studio's Toy Story blasted away the tired fairytale themes of Disney, the studio has set the standard. Last year's Cars was exquisitely animated, and pretty funny, but it had at its heart a sappy nostalgia for the director's childhood that sat a bit awkwardly with its slapstick moments. It also had songs, the worst part of cartoons.

But Ratatouille brings together everything Pixar does best - an original story, cutting edge animation, hilarious sequences and real “heart”.

It is the story of a rat with a refined palate, who not only wants to eat good food, but dreams of creating it.

Remy is a puzzle to his large family in the French countryside as he learns the art of combining flavours to create the sublime, and when, after a breathtaking sequence involving amazingly-realised water, he washes up in Paris, he has the chance to do just that.

He finds his way to the kitchen of the once great Gusteau's, where he rescues a kitchen novice from humiliation by soup, and begins his career as a culinary creator.

This is a story for a generation of food TV watchers - indeed, that is how Remy learns to cook in the first place - and there is a surprising amount of detail about how a restaurant kitchen works, its hierarchy and organisation. The storytellers also understand that the idea of a rat in the kitchen is revolting, and this is the source of a lot of the film's hilarious moments as Remy tries to stay out of sight. His explanation for why he walks upright fits right into this - it's because he wants to keep his paws clean for eating, and we see him wash his hands before cooking. Anyway, Remy spends most of his time as a chef under the hat of the callow kitchen hand Linguine, controlling his movements by yanking on tufts of his hair, just like on the paddles of a computer game console.

Pixar's first film, Toy Story, avoided human characters because the new technique of computer animation created very smooth surfaces. The toys looked super-real, but anything warm-blooded looked absolutely fake. Ever since then, they have been moving closer to animating humans, and finally with Ratatouille, they take the plunge. Their solution is to look back to the classics of the genre, like Looney Tunes, in which humans are often distorted: very fat, very short, with hugely magnified eyes. It works because it acknowledges that the pictures don't look “real”. The backgrounds are astonishing, every bit of kitchen equipment looks real, the rats' fur is amazing, the water totally convincing - and the rats and people are “cartoons”, albeit 3-D cartoons.

The ideas aren't cartoons though - live your dream, but don't over-reach, stay true to your soul.

Ratatouille is the most fun I have had in the movies this year - laugh-out-loud funny, with jokes that appeal to kids, and others for adults, wit and visual pyrotechnics.

And as always, Pixar gives moviegoers that long-forgotten extra: the funny short. (P.S. The end credits are great too, so don't stand up too soon).

*****

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