With films like "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," the CGI geniuses at Pixar have trained audiences to expect computer-animated movies to be very well done. "Ratatouille," sadly, is done only medium-well.
The movie, about a French country rat who defies his family and his rodenty nature in the quest to become a top Parisian chef, has visual sizzle and then some, but the film's meat -- its plot and characters -- is somehow off.
In "Ratatouille," young rat Remy (Patton Oswalt) has trouble finding his place in his garbage-noshing clan. But when he discovers an innate skill for putting together meals from food that hasn't yet hit the garbage heap, he becomes determined to be a chef. He learns the trade with the help of Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), a TV chef whose Paris restaurant once bore the coveted five-star designation.
Fate, in the form of a French crone with a shotgun, sends Remy by sewer pipe to the kitchen of Gusteau's, which is now being run by Skinner (Ian Holm), a half-pint chef in a ten-gallon toque.
There, Remy teams up with Linguini (Lou Romano), a scullery boy, to create the sort of dishes that could put Gusteau's back on the top of the Paris food chain. But first they must overcome obstacles presented by Skinner, food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) and the fact that Linguini can't cook and Remy is a rat.
Thanks to director Brad Bird, and Pixar's creative team, the kitchen at Gusteau's is a feast for the eyes. The settings are so true-to-life that it is sort of unsettling to see Pixar's trademark round-nosed, bobble-eyed characters against them.
But there are bigger problems than that with the characters. While it is true that "Ratatouille" is "just a cartoon," nearly all the characters are predictable cliches, and they don't end up as self-aware as characters in Pixar's other films do. Only the food critic, Ego, has a major wake-up call.
Yes, the movie has heart, and it has a nice message about following your dreams. But the undeveloped characters are hard to relate to or root for, though we do because we know we are supposed to. Sure, we want Remy to succeed, but it's going to be hard for anyone who has ever seen a real rat to accept the idea of a skinny-tailed rodent running a kitchen.
And Linguini is a post-modern man-child whom filmgoers are supposed to like for his charming but schlubby lack of drive. Neither of these guys has half the personality of Buzz Lightyear.
The film's cast is a virtual "who's-who" of "who's-that?" The lack of instantly recognizable voices is a detriment. Holm and O'Toole make their characters come alive with pitch-perfect accents and intonations, but Oswalt, a comedic actor whose career has somehow escaped me up until now, gives Remy a whiny, nasally, Gen-X quality that is less than endearing. And Janeane Garofalo does a lousy French accent as Colette, Linguini's unlikely love interest.
"Ratatouille" falls short on sophisticated wit, but it serves up a more-than-ample amount of slapstick physical comedy to keep the kids happy, and there are a handful of subtle in-jokes for the grown-ups to chuckle over. Some things might be over little ones' heads, but not enough to make them lose interest. And when the souffle-light script droops, adults will be kept engaged by the delectable glimpses of the Eiffel Tower at dawn, the damp cobblestone streets at dusk and all the other visual delights Pixar sets before them.
"Ratatouille" could use a pinch more humor, a dash more character development and a soupcon of unpredictability. But even though it comes off as slightly underdone, it has the just enough of the right ingredients to make it fine family fare.
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Voices of Patton Oswalt, Peter O'Toole, Ian Holm and Janeane Garofolo
DIRECTOR: Brad Bird
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
THE LOWDOWN: A country rat with a knack for cooking defies nature and family expectations to pursue his dream of becoming a top chef.