Director Brad Bird has always referred to animation as an art form, something distinct from live action movies, rather than simply another genre of film. It is his belief that animation can be used to tell any sort of story and that it can be used in such a way to appeal to any sort of audience, whether adults or children. It is perhaps for this reason that Bird's films have always been light years ahead of other animated movies. Quite simply, Bird's insistence that animation is an art is reflected in his movies.
One need look no further than his latest film, Ratatouille, released last year. Ratatouille centres on a rat named Rémy who is blessed with remarkable senses of taste and smell and, as a result, wants to be a chef. Rémy achieves his goal through the hapless Linguini, a young man who just happens to get a job at Gusteau's, the once great restaurant founded by the legendary chef Auguste Gusteau. In the hands of another director such a tale could have been simple children's fare, but in the hands of Bird it is a masterpiece of animated storytelling. In fact, I rather suspect Ratatouille might well appeal more to adults than it would the younger set.
Indeed, it must be pointed out that Brad Bird is one of the few true auteurs working in animation today. Each of his films (his previous two being The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) have been steeped in nostalgia and American pop culture. While The Iron Giant was based on the English novel The Iron Man, Bird took the film and made it entirely a thing of its own, drawing upon the old Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons, Cold War paranoia, and Fifties pop culture. The Incredibles was essentially a paen to Silver Age superheroes, with a family somewhat reminiscent of Marvel's Fantastic Four. Ratatouille follows in the same vein of nostalgia and pop culture, in this instance drawing upon the screwball comedies of the Fifties and Sixties. Even with a rat as the lead character, Ratatouille is a good compliment to such films as The Nutty Professor (the Jerry Lewis original, not the remake), Topkapi, and One, Two, Three.
It is for that reason that, like The Incredibles before it, Ratatouille is unlike any other Pixar film. There are no musical interludes of any sort, let alone songs by Randy Newman. No outtakes or bloopers play during the closing credits. Instead, Ratatouille is very much its own film, a Sixties screwball comedy separated from the rest only through its rodent hero and the fact that it is an animated film.
It is a mark of Bird's status as an auteur that certain themes do run through his films. In fact, the central theme of all three of his movies can be summed up in a line from The Iron Giant--"You are who you choose to be." Each of Bird's movies deal with indivduals struggling with their own individuality, their own need to be who they must be. In the case of Rémy, he must decide between being a traditional rat who simply takes what he wants for food, or a chef who creates culinary delights. As a character Rémy is very much in keeping with both the Iron Giant and Mr. Incredible in seeking a way in which he can be himeself.
Aside from its remarkably strong script, Ratatouille also benefits from some great vocal performances. Ian Holm is delightful as the villain of the piece, Gusteau's former suchef and now the chef at the restaurant. Brad Garrett is virtually unrecognisable as the late chef Auguste Gusteau. Perhaps the best performance in the entire film, however, is Peter O'Toole as dour food critic Anton Ego. It is arguably one of the best performances of an overall stellar career.
Visually, Ratatouille could well be Pixar's strongest film. The film's vision of Paris is lush and romantic--the Paris of many Hollywood films. And Ratatouille features some incredible sequences, from a complex scene set in a storm sewer to Rémy's flight through the kitchen and the restaurant.
Over all, Ratatouille could well be Pixar's best film, which given their oeuvre makes it all the more impressive. It is a truly amazing movie with a strong story line, memorable characters, great performances, and some truly amazing animation. It is also more proof that Brad Bird is truly one of the great auteurs of our time.