OVERRATED: Ratatouille (2007)

Ratatouille (USA, 2007)
Directed by Brad Bird
Starring Patton Oswald, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm

IMDb Top 250: #207 (19/5/12)

One of the golden rules of film reviewing is to never judge a film by its reputation. While this vigilance is particularly required during awards season, it is essential not to judge any film by the prestige of the people who made it; as we all know, good directors can make bad films, and vice versa. This principle seems to have escaped the majority of people who saw Ratatouille, which when stripped of its Pixar prestige and kid-friendly marketing is disappointingly ordinary.Being PIXAR, you're pretty certain from the start that Ratatouille was never going to be a genuinely bad film. The quality control at PIXAR is immense, with writers and animators sometimes taking five or six years to weed out all the aspects which aren't quite right until they end up with a fitting finished product. This is not a case of a bad film slipping through the net - it is clearly the film that PIXAR and director Brad Bird wanted to make.This feeling is confirmed by the gorgeous animation. There is not a single frame in Ratatouille which is not beautifully designed, lit or shot, with both humans and animals being increasingly photo-realistic. In the six years since Monsters Inc., which solved the hair and fur problem, CG animation has moved on apace so that now you almost don't notice the artistry - and that, in theory, means that you are focussed on the story rather than the spectacle.There are some genuine laughs in Ratatouille, which come as much as anything from the setting and the style of comedy. Kitchens and restaurants have always been fertile grounds for slapstick and farce, from Charlie Chaplin's antics in Rink and Modern Times, through to Blake Edwards' The Party and the 'Gourmet Night' episode of Fawlty Towers. The set-pieces, involving slipping on liquid, clanging saucepans and inadvertently ruining dishes, are all pretty standard and (pun intended) par for the course. But they are executed in a dextrous and reasonably elaborate manner which makes one either chuckle or applaud in admiration.Some of the supporting characters in Ratatouille are very well-designed. Peter O'Toole gives a good performance as Anton Ego, playing against type to create some other-worldly hybrid of Will Self and Farmer Bean out of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. The best scene in the film finds him tasting the ratatouille, before flashing back to his childhood where the same dish was served by his mother. Elsewhere Ian Holm is unrecognisable as the short(-tempered) Skinner, and John Ratzenberger makes a welcome cameo as the head waiter.So far, so good - but there's a problem. For all there is to like and admire about the design of Ratatouille, you get the sense that the film is trying too hard to live up to PIXAR's reputation. In its attempt to consciously hit all the same emotional buttons of Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, it forgets to have any of the startling originality and panache which made the PIXAR brand great in the first place. If this didn't have PIXAR anywhere on it, it would probably have been dismissed as a sweet and twee but ultimately unremarkable offering.Notwithstanding the technological leaps they represented, most of PIXAR's films worked because they pushed the envelope of what children's films and family entertainment could do. They combined the most cutting-edge technology and smartest filmmaking techniques with genuine affection for old cinema, proper characters and stories that had something for everyone. While Cars was the first film in which the visuals dominated the story, Ratatouille is the first PIXAR offering that feels like it has been screen-tested. It's too generic, too shiny, too safe to be a proper PIXAR film, and in its weaker moments it's not much better than the worst of Dreamworks.This is reflected in the fact that so much of Ratatouille's plot is stuff that we have seen before. The central conceit that a rat could cook is not a million miles from the final act in Gore Verbinski's Mousehunt, and as in Mousehunt there are various japes and pranks in which the rodents get one over on the humans. You could almost call Ratatouille a spiritual sequel to Verbinski's film. In any case, it is the mouse that beats the rat hands (or claws) down.For all the problems with Gore Verbinski (and there are many), Mousehunt still cuts the mustard as a perfectly passible slapstick farce. Despite the talent involved, like Lee Evans and Christopher Walken, the film was content with being reasonable, innocuous and unassuming - hence when the odd little surprise arrived, it was warmly welcomed. Ratatouille, on the other hand, wants everyone to fall in adoration at its feet, to herald it as a pioneering work of art when in fact it is nothing of the sort.There are other derivative touches too. Having Gusteau's spirit coaching Remy is a rather lazy reworking of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, but without any of the charm or dark consequences. The sewer scenes are at best a sped-up variation on Finding Nemo and at worst a rip-off of Don Bluth's Rock-a-Doodle. In and of themselves these little touches aren't annoying or off-putting, but they reinforce the feeling that we are not seeing anything new (or at least, not as new as we have come to expect).The problem is not just the material: it is Bird's execution and delivery of it. When he started his career in animation, working first for Disney and then The Simpsons, he seemed to have mastered the art of telling stories in a way which had the widest possible appeal. His feature debut, The Iron Giant, is proof of this, retuning Ted Hughes' novel into a Spielberg-style romp with great characters and real emotions.But while John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton have continued and refined this knack of appealing to children and adults alike, Bird has become guilty of making adult films which look like they are aimed at children. The Incredibles may have a lot of whizz-bang action in its second half, but it's hard to believe that very young children will swallow the opening act about selling insurance and going on conferences.In this case Bird has taken a relatively grown-up story about cooking and the food business and told it in the style of a kid's film. It is not a cynical sleight-of-hand like Shark Tale or the later Shrek films, but at heart it is still a film for grown-ups which just happens to look like a kid's film. The dialogue is so fast-paced that young children might miss out on key moments, and the film's overly cute tone overcompensates for the fact that the issues it addresses are predominantly adult ones.Like The Incredibles, Ratatouille is also a little long and baggy. It's not so long and baggy that the comic pace is lost - there are still wonderful little pockets of energy throughout. But at times it feels like it is going through the motions to satisfy audience expectations, and the romance between Linguini and Colette is laboured. The film is predictable enough without this relationship, and even when the characters get screen time together, they feel too generic to really care about.Ratatouille is a surprisingly innocuous and disappointing offering from PIXAR. You couldn't liken it to rotten fruit, or a drink that leaves a sour taste in the mouth, because it never leaves enough of an impression to get upset about its flaws. Bird's early work suggests that he has better films in him, and for wiling away a Sunday evening it will do its job. In the end, it is the cinematic equivalent of icing sugar - very pretty and very sweet, but not as tasty or as weighty as it should be.

Verdict: Disappointingly bland