It's always such a treat to discover that, once in a while, consensus isn't dead wrong. Brad Bird's second Pixar outing, Ratatouille, may have been hyped as one of the summer's sure things, but it surely crept up on me most unassumingly. First because of the noxious stream of sewage the studios have been spewing forth since Memorial Day, most of which, thankfully, I'm judging sight unseen (no, I really haven't had 8-12 hours to waste on more pirates, 'toon-men slingshotting through digital cityscapes, and yogurt-like green blobs picking boogers and flinging pop culture detritus). Secondly, because even as Pixar's output in recent years has grown ever more gleaming, polished, and clever, it has increasingly seemed gleaming, polished, and clever in strictly machine-tooled ways. Even the gloriously designed The Incredibles, with its muddled messages of embracing and suppressing cultural and social differences, was a bit too enamored of itself. Often, when watching a Pixar film you feel that if you squint really hard you can see the animators themselves, patting themselves on the back and giggling at their own jokey precision--the punchlines come as smoothly and effortlessly as the sun reflecting off of a digital car's hood or the palpable textures of a boney anglerfish, and all the "cleverness" can feel oppressive.
That's why Ratatouille bucks all trends; in fact the film exists so fully outside of trends that nearly every second feels like a refresher course in storytelling. Closer in spirit to the knowing, sophisticated Fifties Disney animation like Lady and the Tramp than either the more recent hand-drawn last hurrah showtuners of the Nineties or the automatic CGI classics (like Toy Story or Finding Nemo), Ratatouille has an airy, good-natured, yet wise attitude, a perfectly constructed classical narrative, and a thoughtful design. The pacing is considered—never do you feel jerked around, or that Bird is desperately trying to entertain you; you are rewarded for your patience and your emotional investment. The main character, a rat with a refined palate named Remy who dreams of becoming a chef, is at once impossibly adorable and real-world pragmatic, and his adventures elicit awe, sympathy, and terror in equal doses, and always all at once.
Remy's size and movements allow the Pixar engineers to devise a handful of quick-witted, scurrying, rat's-eye set pieces that transform tunnels and kitchens into labyrinthine passageways, yet for the most part, character and story come first. Perhaps it's because of the dearth of watchable Hollywood product (and that includes those of the "indie" studio subdivisions), but there's something so supremely satisfying about experiencing Ratatouille's becalmed linearity. Bird's tale encompasses about seven or eight major characters, and each of them feels fully a part of the film's scope and intentions. Yet none of them reverberate as much (at least for me, and probably many other film reviewers and, hopefully, viewers of all stripes) as Peter O'Toole's brilliantly, humanely animated Anton Ego, the dire food critic whose ashen visage reminds one of the Addams Family and whose elongated body resembles a grasshopper in a suit. Set up as the film's villain, Ego ultimately turns out to be [spoilers] one of its heroes...which also allows Bird to make some wholly enchanting, trenchant commentary on the critic's importance in the artistic process. It might be a savvy, anti-Shyamalan appeal to the critics in the audience, but it was enough to make me well up. Ego's climactic dish of the titular recipe will undoubtedly remain one of the year's indelible movie images; something elegant made from something mundane. Much like what Bird has done.