Considering how common one sees talking rats and mice in films, books, and TV shows it's a wonder that more attention hasn't been paid to the genre. The variety of approaches and scenarios to be found in this particular subgenre of the talking, anthropomorphized animal picture is intriguing.
These movies are very common; several come out every year and each exists with different rules. Some depict animals as they appear in our world, the only difference being that they can talk to one another. You see that in movies like "Babe," "Charlotte's Web," "Finding Nemo," "Lady and the Tramp," "The Lion King," "Ice Age," "Bambi," "Dumbo," and "101 Dalmatians." Then there are the films that take place in a parallel universe of sorts where human-like animals live. "Duck Tales," the 1973 Disney "Robin Hood, and 2005's "Chicken Little" fall into this camp.
Other films blend the two, depicting animals that live like people in a tiny mirror-world alongside the humans. These animals often wear clothes, make inventions, and live in mini-homes. Usually critter movies fit into this mold the best. (For the sake of accuracy I'll use "critter" since mice, rats, squirrels, and chipmunks can fit into films of this kind.) In some films the mice and rats exist independently of humans. They cannot communicate with humans and the story takes place almost wholly in their mini mirror world. "The Great Mouse Detective," "An American Tail," and "The Secret of NIMH" are exemplary of this school. The worlds of insects and fish are also able to accommodate this premise as seen in such films as "Antz," "A Bug's Life," and "Shark Tale."
However, what we see especially frequently in critter films - including in "Ratatouille" - is the story of the critter(s) developing a friendship with a human and saving them from a villain. An early example of this is in Disney's "Cinderella" where the mice and other animals help Cinderella overcome her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. "The Rescuers," "The Rescuers Down Under," and the cartoon "Rescue Rangers" are all examples of this.
While all of these different subgenres have their particular merits and abilities, it's this last one whose appeal - especially for children - should be quite clear. Having a tiny critter ally, either as a friend or rescuer, holds a deep appeal. There's a bigger subtext here: tiny creatures are capable of doing great things. And what "Ratatouille" aims for and skillfully accomplishes is a unique riff on this theme.
The film takes place in France and focuses on Remy, a rat who lives in a country home with a large pack. Remy is set apart from his rat brethren by an exceptional sense of taste and smell. This is a double-edged sword for a rat. On the one hand he's able to identify all the ingredients in any piece of food and deeply appreciate what he eats. Conversely, a heightened sense of taste is just about the last thing that a rat - who is expected and often forced to eat garbage - would want.
Remy pursues his passion for good food against the commands of his father and peer pressure of his rat family. He learns to read and makes the legendary French chef Auguste Gusteau his hero. This good-natured chef will appear to Remy throughout the film, always acknowledging that he's only a figment of the lonely, isolated rat's imagination. The continual message Gusteau pushes is the title of his cookbook: "Anyone Can Cook." Remy finally gets the opportunity to pursue his interest when the colony of rats is discovered in the farm house. The rats flee into the sewers where Remy is separated. After sliding through the underground pipes and sewers Remy finds himself in Paris at, of all places, Gusteau's restaurant.
Gusteau's is no longer the crown jewel of the Parisian restaurant world that it once was. After a brutal review from the notorious film critic Anton Ego and the death of Gusteau the restaurant struggles. Skinner, the new head chef, is a cruel, bullying tyrant who has further degraded Gusteau by releasing a line of frozen foods with the dead cook's image.
The critter-rescuing-human plot thread begins with the introduction of Linguini, a shy, clumsy, garbage boy recently hired at Gusteau's. Remy watches in horror as Linguini accidentally spills some of a pot of soup. The flustered garbage boy proceeds to try to fix the soup, throwing in random items, only to create an inedible concoction. So the rat takes matters into his own paws, sneaking into the kitchen to fix the soup. Linguini is the only one to discover Remy and his cooking talents. The poor garbage boy is put into an even worse spot when a bowl of the soup is accidentally served to a food critic who adores it.
And so Skinner insists that the boy must remake the soup the next day. Remy and Linguini must team up, with Remy sitting on top of Linguini's head, underneath his chef's hat, pulling at his hair to control his arms. And so begins Remy and Linguini's adventure together. From there additional elements add layers and complexities to the film: the secret of Gusteau's heir, the struggle between Remy and his father over rats' and humans' place in the world, Linguini's love life, and the threat of another deadly review from Anton Ego. It all makes for a rich film, much deeper and more compelling than most animated pictures.
This scenario of little rat in the big city and the big kitchen offers plenty of exciting visual possibilities and director Brad Bird takes advantage of them all. With all the challenges that animation rarely does it seem as though animated films fully take advantage of one of their distinct advantages over live action: the limitless possibilities of their cinematography. Real life films are cursed with cameras that can only do so much. With "Ratatouille," though, Bird and company employ dazzling camera movements that capture Remy cooking, rushing through the wild waters of the sewer, and escaping chefs out to kill him. "Ratatouille" is just more evidence that computer animated films and Pixar in particular are continuing to step up and push the envelope in exciting directions.
Finally, with "Ratatouille" Bird succeeds in a category perhaps more important than technical prowess. According to the Internet Movie Database, Bird said "I reject that whole point of view that animation is a children's medium. The way people talk about it is, well, 'hey, it's a good thing I have kids, because now I get to see this.' Well, hey, no, man! You can just go and see it. There's no other art form that is defined in such a narrow way. It's narrow-minded and I can't wait for it to die." Just as with his two previous pictures, "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles," Bird has crafted a picture for everyone.
You don't have to be a child to appreciate this film's celebration of the rat-human relationship. I predict time will prove that "Ratatouille" will stand heads and tails above its critter kin.