If Ratatouille suffers in any meaningful way, it is simply because it does not redefine the possibilities of cinema like its immediate successor Wall-E, a contender for film of its decade and one of the two greatest American animated films since the original Disney Golden Age (yes, the original Golden Age, the one that ended in roughly 1942 and saw Disney fundamentally reorganize the state of film no less than four times). That aside, it is an impeccable work, and although I suspect the if is more definitive, that is damning as enormous, transcendental praise.
Brad Bird came to Ratatouille with two films under his belt, the incomparably underrated tribute to ’50s genre cinema The Iron Giant and the morally questionable but zippy and whiplash recreation of American comic book history The Incredibles (if I felt Bird was some sort of radical, subversive genius, I might claim this film a mockery of the rampant elitism and individualist bootstraps twaddle inherent in Superhero lore; they don’t call it America’s Modern Mythos for no reason). Yet, while Brad is not looking to stoke the flames of film technique to redraw the lines of the form, or to indict that which he invests time in to with the fury of a New Wave auteur, what he is absolutely interested in, capable of, and brilliant at, is having fun with classical cinema given to new airs. With Ratatouille, he channels his talents into classical Hollywood fluff and has a grin on his face so big it’s ready to jump of and kiss the audience while he’s doing it.
Bird’s other strength, and what makes him a perfect fit as crown jewel in Pixar’s canon, is that he knows his Disney from his Warner Bros, and he can crash and caress the two together with love and affection. For Pixar has never followed the Disney aesthetic, finding, especially in their film’s denouements, the free-wheeling spirit and careful character of Warner Bros. own snark-fueled excursions into the limits of character animation and character identity. Bird’s base story pairs well with his light-as-a-feather approach. A young man, the lovingly named Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), wishes to cook despite no measurable talent, when his way comes Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat who knows his way around a kitchen but can’t survive in one without getting a cook’s knife through his tail. After customary hijinks the two bond and deal up a devilish little secret of a partnership to bring a down-on-its-luck French restaurant whirling back to the top.
Ratatouille has a core of superfluous imagination and skill, but its pleasures all boil up to the surface. The playful banter, the expressive squash and stretch animation, the gleeful camera that glides and purrs with the characters and never exists above their simple, classicist story, the elegant emotion of the lighting, the moments of unctuous non-representation in the animation, and the overload of luminous beauty at the hands of Bird’s team of animators, all wrapped up in a snug blanket of form-fitting, economical storytelling.
Everything unfolds with the warm-hearted panache of a simple fable for the ages, a tale of a boy and his rat that feels at once old as time and wholly fresh and zippy in its own right. The film doesn’t pay tribute to cinema’s past with the incomparable specificity of follow-up Wall-E, but its more gentle story of art finds an indefinite passion for creation that bubbled up right from the heart of its own creators. It’s not a claim nuanced in thought, but it doesn’t aspire to be. Disney and Warner Bros., polar opposites in their own way, were always full-bodied and never embalmed precisely because they asserted the prominence of emotion over intellect, and never apologized for doing so. Apologize Ratatouille does not, for it has no need to. It is simply one of the slightest, lightest, yet most telling and thoughtful, animated features ever released.
And, better yet, it announces Pixar’s true greatness most perceptively: they make animated films, yes. Great animated films, in fact, and often truly wonderful animated films. But they also make cartoons. And we are in danger of forgetting a good cartoon in this world of adult needs and maturity so strong we can taste it. We need cartoons for they live and breathe simple lives of surface-level pleasures that find the surface all the way down to the core. We need visual splendor, cheery, form-fitting characters who charm and flip and dance and skip like they were designed to do so and couldn’t be happier. We need audio to entice and tease and rib us, to seduce us and draw us in. We need flippancy, and we need fun. One of Disney’s lesser films once propositioned for something called “fun and fancy free”. It knew what that meant to a fault. Ratatouille knows it like a welcome old friend. It elevates it, treating it like the work of angels, and never talking back or playing down to it. It’s a wonderfully free film, and I’d like to keep it that way.