Tuesday, May 13, 2008

As well made and as well written as Ratatouille is, there’s also something rather uninspiring about it. It doesn’t have the emotional heft of Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo, it isn’t as funny as Toy Story and it isn’t as exciting as The Incredibles. Instead it’s a tasteful film that evaporates from one’s memory as quickly as a mediocre meal. There isn’t much in this film to sink your teeth into.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Ratatouille is its lack of laughs. After all, this is a comedy first and foremost. Therefore it’s not a great sign when you only laugh out loud once.

The scene that got this response involved the scummy Chef Skinner. He begins to see rats and he’s growing increasingly paranoid about his ability to control the restaurant. So he speaks to a confidant about his fears and starts clicking his fingers, going, ‘Ooh, it’s here’, pretending to see the rodent everywhere. It’s marvellously silly, something that’s actually a rare commodity in a highly controlled film.

The problem that this high level of control has is that you can see almost everything coming. At the beginning you know that Remy the rat is going to be separated from his family and that he’ll have to discover himself. You also know that he’ll face challenges and strike up an alliance with a fellow outcast. And you know that near the end something bad will happen so that he has a challenge to overcome in the final act. You also know, because the guys at Pixar are smart, that Remy will succeed in the end but that his victory will be on a personal rather than grandiose scale. Consequently you see all the beats coming – there’s nothing here that’s going to take you by surprise.

That isn’t necessarily a problem. Predictability needn’t diminish a film’s power to entertain. But the stuff that connects the beats is hardly top-drawer material. It’s very run of the mill.

Which is a shame when a film is as technically accomplished as Ratatouille is. The animation is beautiful and the Paris that is presented here is gorgeous – there are some absolutely stunning panoramic shots and the scene between Remy and Linguini by the Seine drips with atmosphere. I also adored Remy’s expressions – the rat can’t actually talk with humans, instead he has to nod or shrug his shoulders, and it was always clear what he was trying to say.

Another superb piece of animation is when a sleeping Linguini is cooking. You see, this kid can’t cook to save his life, and Remy the rat who can cook very well isn’t allowed in the restaurant because, well, he’s a rat, so they develop a technique where Remy sits on Linguini’s head (under his hat) and by pulling on his hair he’s somehow able to coordinate the boy. Well, there’s a scene where Remy is doing this while Linguini is asleep. But the kid has sunglasses on, so one of his work colleagues doesn’t realise that she’s talking to someone who’s asleep – the gormless expressions and twitchy body movements are a joy to watch.

But this puppeteering does make you wonder once or twice. There’s a romantic sup-plot between Linguini and the film’s only female cook. But the kid only kisses the girl because Remy is pulling his hair and controlling his body. Would Linguini know how to kiss otherwise? And there’s a scene where Linguini and his girlfriend ride off on her motorbike. Somehow, in the heat of it all, Remy loses his grip on his pal and the couple ride off alone. Is the kid able to perform without his master rat puppeteer? Well, that’s probably a yes, as the couple remain together until the end of the film.

One thing that’s immediately clear when watching Ratatouille is how good Pixar are at action. All the action scenes are flawless. My favourite is the scene where an old lady spots Remy in her house and begins trying to shoot him. She shoots her house up so much that the ceiling comes crashing down. But then we see that hundreds of rats have fallen down and they’re staring at her. It’s beautifully timed. And the action that follows where the old lady shoots at the rats from a bridge as they try and make a river escape is impeccable as well.

And then there’s the scooter chase, where the evil chef Skinner chases our hero. It’s fabulous. But at the same time you kind of get the feeling that it’s a little tacked on. The film knows it hasn’t had an action scene in a while, so it throws one in just in case anyone has nodded off.

But it’s the attempts to keep everyone entertained with action and conflict and all the plot points tied up that make Ratatouille more ordinary than it should be. The need to have a story with twists and turns detracts from the sweetness of the film. Because the film is all about doing your best – it’s about pursuing your dream and not giving up. But although the end of the film is lovely, I kind of felt that I didn’t deserve to feel as warm and fuzzy as I did – I didn’t think the film had earned this response; the end is great, but the rest is so-so.

But speaking of the ending, I do like the way that Remy succeeds on his own terms. It would be too silly for him to become a famous Parisian chef, admired and respected by all. But the fact that he eventually has his own place and does his own thing is a good lesson for all – celebrity or fame should never be anyone’s goal; instead you should pursue pleasure and contentment. That’s the road to self-fulfilment and happiness.

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