Ratatouille’s hairy version of vermin isn’t anything like Mickey and Minnie. Which means that the latest animated Pixar offering has a similar, though much less significant, problem as Transformers. Adults may roll their eyes at a movie that turns their childhood heroes into urinating clowns, and grown-ups may not be thrilled about watching rats—even friendly ones with opposable thumbs—swarming buildings and getting their paws on restaurant food. But will children be interested in a 110-minute story of a rodentian Rachael Ray?
It’d be a dicey proposition if it weren’t for Mr. Incredibles. The newest creation of writer-director Brad Bird, now officially the darling of Pixar, is Remy (Patton Oswalt), a French rat with a refined palate and desire to “add something to the world,” despite his family’s insistence that their kind was meant to take things from it. Neither Remy’s gruff father (Brian Dennehy) nor his dimwit brother, Emile (Peter Sohn), understand why he won’t just eat garbage like the rest of them. Remy wants to be a chef, but Dad tries to scare him straight, telling him that the human world is too dangerous and that he should abandon his dream of leaving the clan. Remy’s father does finally recognize his son’s talent for identifying the ingredients of a concoction by sniff—and puts him to work as a poison detector.
The family and their horde of friends are discovered in an old lady’s house—in a surprisingly violent scene, a carpet of them fall through the ceiling when she goes crazy with a rifle after spotting Remy among her seasonings—and they get separated while escaping. Remy negotiates gushing pipes (another frightening sequence, though the inky waters look damn good) and ends up safe beneath a once five-star-rated French restaurant. Since he assumes his family is dead, he takes the advice of his new companion, the ghost of his idol, rotund chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), to sneak into the joint and spice up the kitchen.
Bird may not have created anything as exciting as superheroes or an iron giant when he developed Remy, but the rat’s culinary adventures are both sophisticated and kid-friendly—while mercifully avoiding the usual two-tiered paradigm of lots of face-plants and potty-humor for the little ones while grown-ups get assaulted with pop-culture references. Instead, the story is kept simple while the visuals are extraordinary. As Remy takes rather entertaining steps toward his goal, plenty of worthy life lessons are served as well: Not stealing is a big one, but there are more subtle messages about the importance of family (OK, that’s a yawner) and how not everyone can do whatever they want, but that those with talent need not feel inhibited by their circumstances to succeed (not only a wise teaching, but one that’s ingeniously woven).
Lifelike delicacies may be served in Gusteau’s place, but the eyes get a feast elsewhere as well, particularly in the amazingly realistic skyline views of Paris glowing at night. Bird also loads the film with clever passing details, such as the goings-on in apartments that Remy scampers above or the backstories of the more zestily painted minor characters, such as a severe cook named Horst (Will Arnett) who’s featured in a brief montage of the various reasons he gives for having spent time in prison. (“I killed a man with this thumb.”) Ratatouille is not a showcase of belly laughs, which is a bit of a disappointment if you compare it to its predecessor, The Incredibles. But it’s charming, original, and solid—not a description that will make your kids beg you to see it, but like the patrons eating Remy’s dishes, they never have to know.