Wednesday, July 04, 2007


The geniuses at Pixar have built their company’s reputation on many hallmarks, but perhaps the most important is their ability to take us into other worlds. Over the past 12 years we’ve gone under the sea, under the earth, and into the toy box. We’ve explored realms run by monsters and saved by superheroes, and we’ve seen our beautiful country through the eyes of cars. And now … rats?
Believe me when I tell you: The studio’s latest near-masterpiece, “Ratatouille,” is the ballsiest endeavor its ever attempted.
In an industry driven to tears and fears by the bottom line, it’s amazing an idea for a movie about nature’s ugly little scavengers was even discussed, much less made, and much less by two companies—Disney and Pixar—whose stock and trade is cute. But only the guys at Pixar (did I mention they’re geniuses?) could pull something like this off. In “Ratatouille,” writer/director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) accomplishes the impossible—he makes us care about rats.
First and foremost, this movie is flat-out hilarious. It takes a little bit to really get going (pacing is a problem throughout), but once little Remy the rat makes his way to Paris and meets up with fellow (although human) garbage boy Linguini, things really start cooking. Linguini yearns to be a chef, but finds himself in the unfortunate circumstance of having no talent; Remy, on the other hand, also yearns to be a chef but finds himself in the unfortunate circumstance of being, well, a rat. Rat and food—they don’t exactly go together like peas and carrots.
As you’ve no doubt seen from the trailer, Remy and Linguini work out a system whereby the rodent communicates his culinary commands by pulling on Linguini’s hair. But this certainly isn’t one of those times when the best scenes are used in the preview. Far from it. The training montage is rib-popping funny, as is any time the rats are discovered (think of that scene in “Little Mermaid” where Sebastian the crab is discovered in the kitchen, only even funnier).
“Ratatouille” is Pixar’s eighth full-length film, and as has become tradition the studio improves its craft with each outing. The scenery in last year’s “Cars” was stunning, but “Ratatouille” is even better, especially in the backgrounds—there are times when you’ll swear these animated characters have been superimposed on the real Paris. “Camera”-work is also spectacular, as Bird effectively switches between rat and human perspectives; it feels like you’re the one sitting on Linguini’s head.
This is without question Pixar’s most adult-oriented film. It deals with themes of deceit, ego, loyalty, the work-vs.-family dynamic, and even children out of wedlock, just to name a few. There is plenty of slapstick humor to keep the kiddies entertained, but there are also long sections without a whole lot of yuks—fine for adults, but kids might wander off. It feels a shade long at 110 minutes, as Linguini and Remy have one too many falling outs/reconciliations.
Still, “Ratatouille” ends on such a high note and with a series of unexpected twists, I can certainly understand the rumors of nationwide applause after screenings. Nobody makes movies of more consistent quality than Pixar, and Bird in particular seems to be the studio’s master chef.
Grade: A-

Other movies I’ve seen so far this summer:

“Ocean’s Thirteen”
You certainly can’t say George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh & Co. don’t learn from their mistakes. After the mish-mash train wreck that was 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve,” the crew of lovable scoundrels returned this summer with a back-to-basics approach with “Ocean’s Thirteen” that made the 2001 original (itself a remake) such a charmer.
The boys are (thankfully) back in Vegas this time around with more revenge on their minds, as they’re out to ruin a new venture by casino mogul Willie Bank (a slimy little man played winningly by Al Pacino in a very un-Pacino sniveling performance), who screwed over the crew’s mentor, Reuben. After going through the motions in the predecessor, Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and all the rest are back on their games here. Damon is especially good, playing up the visual comedy of his enlarged prosthetic nose (the Nose plays!).
By its very nature a sequel in this series will suffer because we already know how clever and cool this crew is and don’t get the pleasure of discovery as we did in “Eleven.” But a streamlined script and—what’s this?—a bit of a heart, makes “Thirteen” a winner.
Grade: B+

“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”

I guess the best thing I can say about this superhero flick is that it was better than I thought it would be.
With this sequel, director Tim Story (“Barbershop”) and writers Don Payne and Mark Frost went for a comic book movie for the whole family, which is refreshing in a way. It’s nice to see superheroes who actually enjoy their powers, as opposed to the tortured souls who populate basically every other comic book adaptation since 1989’s “Batman.” This tone leads to some witty banter between the Human Torch (Chris Evans, who could pass for Chris O’Donnell’s brother) and The Thing (a fun turn by Michael Chiklis), but doesn’t leave much room for a gripping story (the movie hustles along in just 92 minutes).
The Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) is undeniably cool, and I could be convinced to go see a spinoff featuring just him, which is probably in the works. But he’s balanced by the utter lack of chemistry between Jessica Alba’s Invisible Woman and Ioan Gruffudd’s Mr. Fantastic, whose scenes fall utterly flat throughout.
Still, for those after a whimsical, blow-’em-up adventure fueled by superpowers, “Rise of the Silver Surfer” adequately fits the bill.
Grade: C

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