Tuesday, 30 October 2007

review: ratatouille (brad bird, 2007)

If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that Ratatouille comfortably places Brad Bird in the position of being unquestionably the greatest auteur of mainstream Hollywood entertainment since Tim Burton in his heyday. The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) already demonstrated a genius at work, a talent that could infuse the familiar formula of the family-oriented animated film with genuine warmth and love (as in The Iron Giant), or ambitiously broaden the horizons of Hollywood animation (as in The Incredibles). With Ratatouille, his best film to date (and also Pixar's), he has retained and expanded on these tendencies, creating a dazzling, heartfelt spectacle that's as moving as it is entertaining.

Like The Incredibles before it, Ratatouille steadfastly refuses to fall into either of the two rigid categories that typically define and limit American animated features - the Disney-esque musical fable, or the Shrek-style, pop-culture-referencing, postmodern pastiche. Ratatouille proves, again, that an animated film doesn't have to be exclusively sappy or played entirely for laughs (though there are also plenty of laughs) - it can take itself seriously and aim for genuine emotion. We know this, of course - Hayao Miyazaki, for one, has been proving this for close to three decades - but such reminders are rare in Hollywood blockbusters, and Ratatouille displays a new level of maturity even for Pixar (while resoundingly putting to rest the disappointment of Cars (2006)). Indeed, between this and what we've seen of Wall-E (to be released next year), one has to wonder if Pixar have entered an era of increased aesthetic ambition and risk-taking.

Ratatouille is still, of course, a resoundingly entertaining and endearing adventure that will
enrapture children and anyone with a youthful spirit. And, even on this level, it is remarkable, demonstrating a fluid and breathlessly inventive visuality capable of sublime beauty and inspired visual gags (often in the same frame), sometimes exploding into Chuck Jones-esque slapstick chases. But there is more to it than that. Even on a cursory viewing, Ratatouille reveals itself to be a film not about rats, or food, but about Art (most emphatically capitalized). Remy the rat is a kitchen Mozart cooking up a culinary symphony (the musical analogy is made concrete with the kynaesthetic bursts of colour accompanying his awakening to his sense of taste), and what he yearns for is a beauty that will lift him from his bestial, mundane existence.

Bird's film makes an affecting, stirring case for the transcendental power of Art and beauty, while almost Romantically celebrating the individual genius of the artist capable of such beauty. In a measure of the film's intelligence, however, Bird does not simplify these ideas - the desire for beauty and the dream of personal ambition and fulfillment of the genius come into credible conflict with pragmatism and the voices of family tradition - a conflict that is not painted in black and white, but that creates genuine characters arguing understandable positions.

Neither does Bird shy away from tackling the accusations of elitism that have been fielded against the Romantic idea of the artist as the individual genius. On the contrary, he brings the debate explicitly centre-stage throughout the film, mostly through the musings of the superbly realized, quasi-vampiric critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole). Again, as in The Incredibles, Bird argues for exceptional individuals to be allowed to flower and share their talents for the benefit of humanity, but here he emphasizes that this great talent can be present in anyone. There can be no lower lower-class than the rat, yet that is where genius is found; while Linguini, culinary nobility by blood, is entirely, almost defiantly, talentless.

Little else can be said in conclusion. Ratatouille is a joy that has exceeded expectations; Pixar's best, one of the highlights of the year, and a confirmation of Brad Bird as a great artist to be noticed.

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