boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
MOVIE REVIEW

Cheese wiz

Pixar's 'Ratatouille' serves up magic with its touching tale of a rodent chef

Like a lot of people, I don't pretend to know how the folks at Pixar do it. How do they make you love a rat? This isn't merely a question of technology, although the technical questions persist (where exactly does the camera go?). It's more of a spiritual matter. How do you give a rat a soul? I don't really want to know. I'll just be a child about it: It's magic. I know it's magic because the week I saw Pixar's new movie, "Ratatouille ," there was a small rodent invasion at my home, and I left this movie worried that one of my traps might fatally snap on a gourmet rat like Remy, the movie's star. This is crazy, but there you have it.

Voiced by the comedian Patton Oswalt , Remy is a foodie -- part snob, part epicure, totally bewildered that no one else can tell the difference between a morel and chanterelle. This guy is an alchemist. His obsession with the gustatory possibilities of mixing ingredients turns out to be serious. In one lovely sequence, the scene goes black around him as he tries out a toasted goat cheese, mushroom, rosemary treat. The combination is a jackpot, and when he tastes it the screen goes wild with color. These same ingredients, eaten by his dim, gluttonous brother, Emile (Peter Sohn ), leave the screen comically dulled, like a dud firecracker compared to Remy's Fourth of July sparklers.

Sadly, Remy has been living with Emile, their father, Django (Brian Dennehy ), and about a zillion other rats in the streets and sewers, using his refined olfactory sense to detect whether the food swiped from the garbage by his grubby, uncultured colony contains poison. He wants more for himself. He wants to be a chef at a five-star restaurant, not one for rodents, one for people -- people who happen to hate rodents. His father detests humans and forbids Remy to walk like homo sapiens (when he does, it's to keep his paws clean).

After he's separated from the colony, Remy's wish begins to come true. He's swept to the surface of a city he's shocked to discover is Paris (it gleams like a Fabergé egg). Not only that, he's in the kitchen of his favorite chef's restaurant. The late Gusteau (Brad Garrett) produced a culinary legacy that the current head chef -- a gnome named Skinner (Ian Holm) with Peter Lorre's face -- is guiltily leasing as a series of down-market microwaveable dinners (Chopsocky Pockets!).

Up to this moment, "Ratatouille," which Brad Bird has lovingly written and directed, is sweetly conventional. It's just the classic up-from-nothing, don't-forget-where-you-came-from story. It's "The Jazz Singer." It's "Ratz n the Hood." But in the kitchen, which is Remy's obstacle course, and around Paris, "Ratatouille" becomes exceptional. A whooshing kinetic energy takes over. The movie doesn't have to strain for liftoff the way Pixar's "Cars" did (that movie had a Volvo's boxiness. "Ratatouille" keeps inventing surprises.

Remy arrives at the restaurant the same day a ropey, meek American kid named Linguini (Lou Romano) shows up: He's Gusteau's son. The kid is handed a garbage boy job, but when Remy catches him fiddling with a pot of soup, he instinctively swoops in to improve it. The restaurant has lost one of its five stars, and the menu hasn't changed in ages, but the soup is a hit, and a disbelieving Skinner commands the unwitting Linguini to do it again. So the movie sets out to forge a friendship between gangly heir and rat.

They strike a deal in a beautiful nighttime sequence on the banks of the Seine. Afterward , the young man takes the young rodent home to his small apartment with a fabulous view. There Remy tries to transfer his instincts to Linguini by pulling his hair (when the rats in this movie speak, all the humans hear are their squeaks ). Only Sonny Chiba teaching Uma Thurman how to be a samurai in "Kill Bill" is more amusing and lovingly detailed.

Bird has written up a storm. With Remy under his hat, Linguini has to cook more soup, while fooling Skinner, who swears he can smell a rat, and winning over the rest of the Gusteau kitchen staff, including the lone woman (Janeane Garofalo ) , whom he likes. There is the business of the legitimacy of Linguini's parentage (it could obstruct Skinner's inheritance of the restaurant) and Remy's reunion with his brother, dad, and brood.

There are breakups, make ups, the reluctant appearance of the country's most important restaurant critic (Peter O'Toole ), and one marvelously nauseating passage in which dozens of sous-chef rats break every health code violation in the book. "Ratatouille" might be the year's most densely plotted Hollywood movie. By the second hour, it's definitely the strangest. Sweetbreads become a must-have dish. And seriously: Rats stir pots and chop veggies! If this is revolting (and it is), the movie is also touching in small but profound ways.

For one thing, all the voice work here is excellent, especially Oswalt's. He sounds like Paul Giamatti but with a greater capacity for confidence. He makes Remy's excitement over being in a kitchen contagious. For another, Bird and the animators have thought of everything. Yeah, the bodies are diverse and life like. And, indeed, the food looks delicious ( Linguini awakes to an omelet from Remy that brought tears to my eyes; and the movie's title dish belongs in the Louvre before it belongs on a plate). But it's the even smaller moments that are truly dazzling: grains of salt on a counter, the drop of faucet water Remy uses to wash his paws, the stray crumbs on the floor discreetly under carts and along baseboards, the way the restaurant critic looks like something Klimt would have painted if he lived in a morgue. This isn't pedantic design. It's perfection.

Bird also wrote and directed "The Incredibles ," Pixar's best movie, and there's a generosity of human spirit here that unites the two . In "Ratatouille," that spirit even extends to that joyless food critic. His response to a meal is so nearly Proustian that it inspires an eloquent and respectful review about a work of art that opens your eyes and rewires your senses. I knew what he meant. A few hours after "Ratatouille," I replaced the Velveeta in my mouse trap with a piece of gruyere.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Ratatouille

Written and directed by: Brad Bird

Starring the voice of: Patton Oswalt , Lou Romano , Peter Sohn , Brian Dennehy , Ian Holm , Brad Garrett , Janeane Garofalo

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: G

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES