Remy is a rat - a rat with a rather demanding palate. While his brethren are content to eat any old garbage (literally), his tastes are somewhat more refined, which eventually results in his becoming separated from his clan when a kitchen raid goes wrong. Remy finds himself in Paris, and in the kitchen of the great chef Auguste Gusteau, which has fallen on hard times following the untimely death of its proprietor. It's here that Remy runs into Linguini, Gusteau's illegitimate son and the restaurant's new garbage boy. Remy wants, more than anything to be a chef, while Linguini wants more than anything to be something other than a garbage boy. Unfortunately, there is a slight problem: Remy can cook exquisitely, but rats, by popular logic, can't be chefs. Linguini, meanwhile, as a human, could be a chef were it not for the slight snag that he can't cook. Using an ingenious method of puppetry, the two strike up an unorthodox partnership, behind the back of the kitchen's current proprietor, the vile Skinner.
While watching the familiar Walt Disney castle appear at the start of Ratatouille, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that things were almost very different. Three ago, while the film, Pixar's seventh full-length animated feature, was still in the early stages of development, relations between the Mouse House and the studio that brought us Toy Story and The Incredibles had turned decidedly sour, thanks in no small part to bad blood between Pixar Chairman/CEO Steve Jobs and the then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner. For a long time, it looked as if the two companies would part ways after Pixar delivered Cars and made good on its five-picture deal with Disney, which, had this come to pass, would have made Ratatouille the first Pixar feature not released under the Disney banner.
In reality, of course, things turned out somewhat differently and Disney not only restrengthened its relationship with Pixar but in fact went as far as to acquire the studio. Ratatouille, however, still had something of a troubled production history, not least as a result of its original director, Jan Pinkava, the filmmaker responsible for Pixar's award-winning short Geri's Game, being removed from the project and replaced with Brad Bird, himself hot from the success of the Oscar-winning The Incredibles. Bird effectively inherited the character models, props and sets, along with the skeleton of a plot, and as a result took the story itself back to the drawing board, rescripting it around the various pre-existing art assets and turning out the entire film in a mere eighteen months - a record for Pixar. (Of course, this was certainly not the first time that a Pixar film changed hands midway through development, John Lasseter having replaced Ash Brannon on Toy Story 2 when that project was upgraded from a direct to video cheapquel to a full-blown big screen outing.) Pinkava retains a co-directing credit, but one gets the sense that this was merely a courtesy.
The result is that this is less Bird's film than his two previous theatrical ventures, The Iron Giant and the aforementioned The Incredibles. While both of these movies had similar themes woven throughout them, namely an obsession with superheroes and a vision of the future filtered through a decidedly 60s-inspired aesthetic, these traits are nowhere to be found in Ratatouille, and indeed, one gets the impression that Bird's task was, more than likely, simply to guide the project to the finish line as opposed to injecting anything of himself into it. As a result, there is a slight ring of insincerity to the more heartfelt moments. I have no doubt that Bird became fully engrossed in the world that he inherited, and in interviews he clearly comes across as someone with a passion for the project and its ideals, but there is an element of mundanity to the plot and the way in which it develops. Dig a little below the surface, and you can find the same generic buddy picture framework that characterised all of Pixar's features until The Incredibles, along with a healthy dose of that animation stalwart, the "triumph of the little guy" motif. It's a good framework, but one that is becoming slightly predictable.
Kudos then, goes to Bird and his crew for throwing in enough novel material to spice up the relatively generic storyline. Particularly commendable is his avoidance of having Remy and Linguini communicate through words: Remy can understand Linguini, but the same is not true in reverse, which requires the rat to use gesture and pantomime to make his point. Given that Pixar's most obvious competition, the films of DreamWorks Animation, tend to be characterised by an over-reliance on wordplay and celebrity voices, it's a pleasure to see Ratatouille so reliant on physical comedy and not on dreary puns and pop culture references that were dated before the lines were even recorded. Look at the credits, and you'll see the names of Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm and Peter O'Toole, but they are cast because they are right for their respective roles rather than because their names will bring in the big bucks (and seriously, who actually says "Hey, I'll go and see this Shark Tale film because it's got Will Smith as a talking fish!" anyway?), and two of the most important roles in the film - Linguini, and Remy's brother Emile - are actually voiced by Pixar artists (The Incredibles production designer Lou Romano and veteran Pixar story artist Peter Sohn respectively). That said, for all my disparaging of the verbal diarrhoea from which so many animated films suffer, my favourite moment in Ratatouille remains a line of dialogue: the bizarre, perverted and outright baffling "One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know!" spoken by Skinner (Ian Holm putting on his most caricatured French accent).
What the film does, better than perhaps any of Pixar's previous films, is to establish a specific mood and maintain it from beginning to end. The Paris that we see in Ratatouille feels like a living, breathing place, instantly recognisable due to its picture postcard use of familiar locations (fairly early on, we get the requisite night skyline with the Eiffel Tower predominantly featured), yet, at the same time, the attention to the little details is exquisite. There is a lived-in quality to the various buildings, from the chipped plaster of the walls outside to Skinner's kitchen, which actually feels like it's sweltering with heat. This attention to detail extends to the various cooked dishes: Pixar employed various chefs to consult on the film in order to ensure complete accuracy. It's an extra step that could easily have been left out, but it adds that extra level of authenticity to the production, and, in making computer generated imagery actually appear edible, the various artists involved have pulled off no small feat. The character designs are somewhat less attractive, and, although the non-animal designs in Ratatouille are by far the best ever accomplished in 3D animation, they still have that fake, doll-like appearance that shows that the medium is still a long way from creating completely convincing humans.
Oh, and the most visually arresting piece of footage in the entire film comes in the form of the two-dimensional artwork that accompanies the end credits. This, in conjunction with the predominantly 2D short film, Your Friend the Rat, which accompanies Ratatouille on its Blu-ray and DVD releases, has convinced me that the time is ripe for Pixar to tackle a traditionally animated feature.
Ratatouille is perhaps best summed up by what it is not. It is not Brad Bird's best effort, although, given that his previous two efforts were both masterpieces of their respective media - traditional and computer animation - it would have taken an exceptional film indeed to dethrone them. It is also not as emotionally fulfilling as Pixar's best work - for me, Toy Story and The Incredibles, but at the same time, it possesses a level of charm that makes it virtually impossible not to warm to it. Taken in terms of the Pixar menu as a whole, it is probably best to see it as a dessert rather than the main course, but it is a beautifully prepared dessert - one that both looks and tastes exquisite. My compliments to the chef.
To say that Ratatouille's high definition transfer is exquisite would be doing it an injustice. Presented in 1080p in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, this AVC encode is sublime in every possible way. Brad Bird specifically asked Rick Sayre, a Pixar technical director who also handled the encoding of the DVD releases of The Incredibles (see here for my rave review of the transfer for the Region 2 UK release of that film), to be in charge of creating the DVD and Blu-ray transfers for the film, and I for one am incredibly glad that he did. Ratatouille features a smooth, warm look as opposed to the overly sharp, synthetic look favoured by most CG-animated films, and as a result details don't always leap of the screen in the way that they do on, say, the Blu-ray release of Cars, but this is completely appropriate given the film's intended look.
I cannot find a single flaw in this transfer, and I mean that in a literal sense: generally, even the best-looking transfers, regardless of the disc format and codec used, will feature minuscule elements that cause it to fall just shy of perfection, be it a tiny compression artefact here or a smidgen of edge enhancement there, but there is none of that in Ratatouille. Colour, contrast, detail and encoding rank up there with the best I have seen, and the only transfer for an animated feature that I can think of that could possibly be considered to be on the same level is Sony Pictures' Blu-ray release of Open Season (a vastly inferior film!).
The audio is equally impressive. As usual, I was unable to sample the PCM 5.1 (48kHz/24 bit) track in anything other than two-channel stereo (owing to my Playstation 3's lack of analogue outputs and my audio receiver's lack of an HDMI input), but, if it improves on the 640 Kbps Dolby Digital track in any way, then it will be an outstanding mix indeed. Pixar's films have always been famous for their elaborate sound design, and this one is no exception. Randy Thom has created a thoroughly detailed mix, utilising all five channels (plus the subwoofer) extensively throughout and, like the film's production design, subtly drawing the viewer into the rich world that has been created and actually making it feel like a living, breathing place.
French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are also provided, along with subtitles in these two languages for the film. The film, and all of the available bonus features, are also subtitled in English.
Ratatouille's standard definition DVD release features a shockingly paltry line-up of extras, particularly in comparison to the lavish 2-disc special editions bestowed on every Pixar film prior to Cars, and as such, the fact that all of them have been ported over to Blu-ray will probably not be cause for too much celebration.
Fine Food and Film is a 14-minute featurette, presented here in high definition, that compares the roles of a director of animated films, in this case Brad Bird, and a chef, proprietor of the noted restaurant The French Laundry, Thomas Keller. It's a good piece, and the parallels drawn between the two occupations are interesting, but, as with most appetisers, you're left wanting more. (On the Blu-ray release, more is indeed delivered. Those restricted to standard definition are not so lucky.)
Two short films are also included. Of the two, the stronger is Lifted, written and directed by veteran Pixar sound designer Gary Rydstrom, which shows a hapless alien being graded on his ability to successfully pull off the abduction of a human. It's riotously funny and genuinely pushes the boundaries of computer animation in terms of dynamic facial expressions. The audio design is also spectacular. Less impressive, although only slightly, is Your Friend the Rat, a semi-serious historical guide to the species which manages to be notable for its combination of different animation techniques, ranging from CG to hand-drawn to stop motion. Both of these films are presented in full 1080p high definition with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
Three deleted scenes are also included, presented in standard definition and largely shown in storyboard form, albeit augmented with camera pans and various pieces of basic motion. Each is either preceded or followed by a brief interview with someone involved in the production (Brad Bird, producer Brad Lewis and story supervisor Jim Capobianco), who explains the reason behind it being cut. All three show the film at a much earlier stage of development, most noticeable in the case of the third and final scene, in which Gusteau is still alive.
Blu-ray Exclusive Extras
As with Cars, it is quite clear that the main reason for the Ratatouille DVD's disappointing line-up of bonus material is that the best were being saved for the high definition version right from the start. A massive array of Blu-ray exclusive extras is served up, the sum total of which easily rivals most of Pixar's 2-disc DVD releases. What's particularly strange is that, although BD-Java is certainly used for some of the features, the vast majority of them could easily have been included on the standard definition DVD release.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the audio commentary. It is provided here in the form of what is described as "Cine-Explore mode", which in reality turns out to be little more than the standard Pixar "visual commentary", with infrequent cutaways to short featurettes which briefly interrupt the film and the main commentary. What's odd is that this track, which features Brad Bird and producer Brad Lewis, is not advertised anywhere, either in the press materials and packaging or on the disc menu. It's almost as if it was an afterthought, but it's a decent track, if not up to the standards of the exemplary commentary that Bird and producer John Walker recorded for The Incredibles. The only materials here that could not have been done on DVD are various still images that are overlaid on top of the film at various points, generally showing concept artwork or a photograph of an individual being talked about. Perhaps I've been spoiled by HD DVD, which has been providing picture-in-picture video material on its In-Movie Experience and U-Control features right from the start, but all of this seems a bit primitive to me, and it's hard not to see this as a failing of the Blu-ray format thanks to its unfinished spec (picture-in-picture will not be supported until Profile 1.1 players become available).
The various featurettes that the Cine-Explore mode cuts away to can all be accessed independently from the disc menu. They are all presented in standard definition, and cover a wide array of subjects, ranging from the animation itself to the research trip to Paris undertaken by many of the film's key creative personnel. The material on offer is good, but once again the presentation is somewhat problematic, because the overall effect is somewhat disjointed, making me yearn for a more focused feature-length documentary rather than various short snippets.
One important point to note is that the commentary clearly has not been designed with these cutaways in mind, so, whenever a featurette plays, Bird and Lewis' chatter is interrupted, often mid-sentence, which adds to the disjointed feel of the whole piece. Luckily, it is possible to disable all of the featurettes from playing by choosing "A La Carte" mode for the Cine-Explore piece, which allows the individual viewer to customise his or her experience by choosing which, if any, of the various featurettes should play. Given that you can access all of the featurettes from the menu anyway, you won't be missing out on anything. Be prepared for some serious button-clicking, though: the menus are laid out in such a way that you have to jump through several screens to access each of the various features. Again, I find myself wishing there was a single documentary, or at least an option to play all of the various short pieces in a sequence ("Play All" buttons are provided for the various sections, but there are quite a few of these).
Also included are a brief tribute is provided for Dan Lee, a Pixar character designer who died during the production of the film (why this piece is exclusive to the Blu-ray release is beyond me), and as a brief sequence which can be viewed with an alternative music cue provided by composer Michael Giacchino.
The final bonus feature, which I've been putting off till the very end of this review, is Gusteau's Gourmet Game. As you will probably know if you have read many of my previous reviews, I have a heart-felt loathing for the child-oriented games and activities that Disney insists on including on its various DVD releases, and I'm sorry to say that I'm no fonder of this high definition, BD-Java variant. Essentially, you are required to work in Gusteau's kitchen and use the remote control to fulfil various orders and maintain the restaurant's star rating, but, however you dress it up, this is the same sort of dreck that wastes valuable disc space on Disney's standard definition DVDs, with higher production values and slightly more fluid controls. Incidentally, I'm aware that certain Blu-ray players are unable to play this game, due to compatibility issues. Viewers in that position are not missing out on anything, believe me.
Special bonus! Click the image above to view the full 1080p frame!
All things considered, this is a superlative release. The audio-visual quality is so impressive that, if it had been bare-bones, this disc would have been getting my unreserved recommendation. As it is, you may have to sift through the material on offer to get to the juicy bits, but there is a wealth of information on offer provided you are able to put up with the less than ideal menu system. Ratatouille on Blu-ray is just what this diner ordered.
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