Why can't every film be as good as Ratatouille? Why can't every film be made with such attention to detail, such wit and imagination? A CGI-animated feature like Ratatouille is years in the making, with a huge team of animators constructing the picture frame by frame, so perhaps that's why it feels like such a minutely detailed labour of love – but if that's the case, then why are we subjected to such a torrent of substandard animated movies every single year? The single-word answer to these questions is Pixar, the studio which has produced an unbroken run of technically dazzling and hugely entertaining films since 1995's revolutionary Toy Story (even their weakest efforts in that period, like last year's Cars, have still been perfectly enjoyable); and with their latest picture they have produced a film which represents the very core ideals driving their work.
Brad Bird's deliriously enjoyable Ratatouille is a film about the unashamed pursuit of excellence, the joy of creating something which brings pleasure to others, and an acknowledgement that great artistry can come from the most unexpected places. In this case, the artist in question is a rat, surely the last character you would wish to find in the kitchen. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) doesn't view food in the same way his garbage-munching clan does, though; he admires human beings – "They taste! They discover!" – and his fussy tastebuds provoke him into seeking out fresher and more exciting culinary experiences, a quest which inevitably leads him into trouble. When he is discovered in the kitchen of a small French cottage, Remy and his clan are forced to flee with a gun-toting pensioner hot on their tails, but during the pursuit he is separated from his family, and he finds himself lost in the dark French sewers, hungry and alone.
Remy isn't alone for long, though, and his overactive imagination conjures up the spirit of the late, great chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). This particular chef has long been an inspiration for Remy, with his oft-repeated belief that "anyone can cook", and here he leads the rodent up to the streets of Paris, to the once-great restaurant that bears his name. Remy is in heaven, but no rat – however skilled he may be with herbs and spices – is welcome in a restaurant, and he has to find another way to get close to the smells and tastes being whipped up in the Gusteau kitchen. Fate leads him to Linguini, a hapless youngster employed in a menial role, and when a frantic mix-up over the soup results Linguini taking the credit for Remy's culinary skills, the pair strike an unlikely alliance. Situated under Linguini's toque, Remy controls his loose-limbed puppet via strategic pulls on his hair (resulting in some very funny slapstick), but their dishes cause such a stir they pique the interest of notorious critic Anton Ego (a marvellous Peter O'Toole), the venomous scribe whose biting critique of Gusteau's cooking hastened the chef to his death.
Ratatouille even finds a way to put a fresh spin on the Cyrano de Bergerac story, with Remy literally guiding Linguini towards a romance with driven sous-chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo), but while Bird allows the relationship between man and rodent to blossom, he never lets us forget that Remy is still a rat. Ratatouille anthropomorphises its non-human creatures just enough to give them personality, while keeping their movements suitably rat-like. To those of us who aren't particularly fond of these animals (that would be most of the audience, I'd guess) there are some surprisingly unpleasant sights to endure in Ratatouille. When the rats are seen scurrying en masse through the dank sewers their perfectly replicated behaviour is almost too real; and a genuine shiver went up my spine when I saw Remy and his pals clambering all over the kitchen shelves, tasting and sniffing the food.
We grow to love Remy, though, and in the final stages we even develop a soft spot for the hordes of rats who band together to help his cause. As a narrative, Ratatouille is slighter and a little more pat than we have come to expect from Bird, who has set a high benchmark for himself with his previous films, but the manner in which the story is told is faultless. It has become a cliché to say that the latest Pixar film breaks new ground in animation, but one can't talk about Ratatouille without marvelling over the quality of the film's visuals. This really is one of the most beautiful films of the year but – crucially – it is a film which wears its splendour lightly. The stunning realism of the settings, the gorgeous recreation of Paris, and the extraordinary levels of detail on show in every single shot – from matted rat fur to cuts and scrapes on the chefs' hands – the artistry is simply breathtaking. However, all of this visual wizardry is used solely to enhance the film's overall quality, to envelop us in a fully realised world, and one never gets the sense that we're being shown something just to display the filmmakers' technical skill.
That same lack of ostentation is evident in the casting decisions made by the filmmakers. While other CGI-created family films are stuffed to the gills with A-list stars and hot-for-the-moment celebrities, the lead roles in Ratatouille go to Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano; and even the more familiar names among the cast – Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Janeane Garofalo – are almost unrecognisable as they alter their voices to work for the characters. The best vocal performance does come from the biggest name among the cast, though, with Peter O'Toole lending his wonderful intonation a deeper rumble to personify the feared Anton Ego. Even at this deeper pitch, O'Toole's voice is unmistakable, and he gives every single line an edge and dimension that only a great actor can produce.
Anton Ego is also at the centre of Ratatouille's finest moment, when he finally sits down to taste the eponymous dish. Throughout the film Remy's taste sensations had been expressed through whirling, flashing lights which blend together as he mixes his flavours – a nice idea, that doesn't really work – but when Ego reacts to the food he has just tasted Bird pulls off something magical. It is a transcendent sequence which is dazzling both in its conception and execution, and it gives Ratatouille a climax which is satisfying in the most unexpected ways.
As he did in The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, Brad Bird uses Ratatouille to explore the themes of identity and destiny, introducing us to characters who are programmed to behave a certain way but who want to find their own path. Brad Bird is a perfect match for Pixar, using the studio's technical brilliance to tell new and adventurous stories which are as thematically rich and emotionally resonant as any live-action fare. Animation is often dismissed as being "just for kids", and even after the boom of the past decade it is rarely afforded the respect given to the more conventional awards-baiting films produced every year; but a great filmmaker is a great filmmaker, regardless of the tools he uses, and the fact that Bird works within the framework of the summer family movie should not denigrate his achievements one bit. "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great," Gusteau advises Remy during the course of the picture, and a similar maxim holds true for cinema: anyone can direct a movie, but only an artist can make a Ratatouille.