Sunday, October 21, 2007


Ratatouille came out ages ago in America, but it's only been out in Britain for a couple of weeks.

By the way, for once, I went to see this at the Dominion, an independent cinema just round the corner from my flat. The Dominion is a strange little place, which has obviously decided that it can't compete with the multiplexes on range. Therefore, it's going to compete on quality - albeit a slightly retro idea of quality. They've now torn out half the seating in their two main screens, and replaced them with... sofas. Seriously. You get a two-person sofa and a footstool. And side tables. With Pringles. (For those people in odd-numbered groups, they also have ridiculous leather armchairs.)

It looks very strange indeed - not least because half the auditorium is still traditional cinema seating. It's like having a visible class division. But it's very comfortable, I'll give them that. And hey, if you're going to compete on quality of seating, you might as well go to town on it.

Anyway, Ratatouille.

The film got great reviews in America and Britain, but it's been one of Pixar's smaller box office successes - although, of course, it was huge in France. I liked it, but I can see why it wasn't up there with Toy Story, and to be honest, I'm a little bit surprised by the scale of critical acclaim it's had. It's good, perhaps even very good, but it's not great.

The concept, if you don't know: Remy, a rat who dreams of becoming a chef, becomes separated from his clan and ends up in the Paris restaurant once run by his now-deceased culinary idol Gousteau. He ends up forming an unlikely duo with the talentless Linguini, a low-ranking kitchen worker who relies entirely on Remy's prompting to cook anything. As Remy happens to be a genius, Linguini's non-existent cooking skills attract more and more attention...

On its own terms, Ratatouille works very well. The problem is that its own terms may not be quite what some people are looking for from a Pixar movie. It's not especially funny, for one thing. There's some good comedy in it, but nothing to compare with the pre-movie short, Lifted. It's more of a gentle fairy tale. If you thought Cars dragged in the middle, well, this might not be for you.

And while the central metaphor of gourmet cuisine as self-actualisation might play well with film critics, I'm not sure how well it works for people who haven't got the faintest interest in the subject. There was a similar "let's get back to well-founded elitism" undercurrent in The Incredibles, and I have no problem with that - Brad Bird thinks true excellence should be celebrated, and that we should stop pretending everything is excellent. That message is, if anything, even more deeply embedded in a film like Ratatouille, which is practically a celebration of elitism. The finest thing you can do in this film is to be a culinary genius; the next finest thing is to help one. Bird tries to balance that with an egalitarian message - anyone could turn out to be elite - but I'm not sure the end result is quite what audiences want to hear.

But Pixar are more concerned about telling their story, and quite right too. It's a gentle and endearing film. There's an interesting decision that the rats can only talk to one another, which requires them to be able to shift from anthropomorphic to normal rats depending on who they're dealing with. They pull that off wonderfully. And, as is obligatory to mention in any Pixar film, the quality of the computer animation continues to get subtly better and better. The water is particularly impressive in this one.

A good film, but a slower one than people might be expecting from the makers of Toy Story and The Incredibles - both of which, to be honest, are still more entertaining in my book.

By the way, it turns out that Lifted is freely available on the web. So here it is.