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There's big business in marketing art to children. By surreptitiously pounding images into their heads through shows like Little Einsteins, we're somehow making them smarter. What this "educational" stuff fails to do, though, is actually inspire them to their own bouts of creativity. To do that, you can't actually lecture. You have to create an inspiring work of art.

Thank heavens Brad Bird gets that. Not that he's necessarily out to inspire children; like any great artist, all he really wants is to do good work in his chosen medium. With Ratatouille, he's continued Pixar's legacy of quality family-friendly films, but also made a clear statement about the burning need to create, and art's place in the soul.

After watching Ratatouille, you can have no doubt about the artistry of cooking. Oddball rat Remy (Patton Oswalt, warm even when Remy is uncompromising) explains it in music and color so forcefully, you'll be salivating over computer generated ingredients. Blessed (or cursed) with an advanced sense of smell, Remy has within him an urge he does not understand. His father Django (Brian Dennehy) wastes his gifts by using him as a detector for rat poison.

As must happen in animated films, this lonely rat longs for more. Without his father's knowledge, Remy has taught himself to read, and finds himself fixated on the cookbook of renowned French chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett).

Controversial within the world of the film, Gusteau titled his book and lived by the motto, "Anyone Can Cook." A rat dares to dream. When disaster strikes the colony, Remy finds himself in Paris, haunted by Gustea and almost miraculously living outside the restaurant that bears the late Chef's name.

You think you know the rest, but you do and you don't. Bird skillfully mixes standard plot elements with new storytelling herbs and spices, setting up one major conflict, resolving it and moving on to something else. At first, things center around Remy's friendship/partnership with the talentless human Linguini (Pixar animator Lou Romano) and their conflict with the diabolical Chef Skinner (Ian Holm).

As the antagonist, Skinner represents the clearest obstacle to art - mass marketing. Under his rule, the Gusteau name will be reduced to a line of frozen fast foods, turning a great artist into a posthumous corporate mascot. (Though that's not necessarily evil; let's not bite the hand feeding Pixar offered by the ghost of Walt Disney.)

But Skinner isn't all that stands in the way of greatness. Remy feels pressure from his family and the rat colony. Of course, his very presence in the kitchen is also a health code violation. Then there's the cadaverous Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), the great food critic whose judgment broke Gusteau's spirit.

That's a lot to contend with, and a lot of symbolism sneaking into children's subconscious. For make no mistake, this film is absolutely appropriate for children, but like many previous Pixar efforts with a depth that elevates it to something more. Even Janeane Garofalo gets pushed into a performance that's new territory for her - doing a French accent.

Ratatouille isn't perfect. That accent thing might be a little bothersome because it's not consistent among the characters. Though Linguini must have been at least raised in France, he speaks with the laid-back tones of, well, a happy animator living in Emeryville. Some of the character interactions feel a bit stock, though every actor makes a tremendous effort.

But then we join Remy in gazing at the Paris skyline. The artists at Pixar have filled the screen with sumptuous image upon sumptuous image. It's not overwhelming, but it's the kind of detail that begs to be seen again and again. It's a nice counterpoint to Remy's ability to add tiny details to his cooking, exciting the senses and evoking memories and/or desires. After all, isn't that the point of art?

Ratatouille pushes the boundaries of what Americans accept in animated storytelling, but not so much that viewers won't follow. The genius of Bird and his boss John Lasseter is that they've been educating us all along, making their stories resonate. Perhaps anyone can cook, offers Bird, and perhaps anyone can make a film. Though not everyone has talent, anyone could have talent.

We're lucky so many found their way to Pixar.


Derek McCaw

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