(2007) *** 1/2 G
110 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Directors: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava. Cast: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn.

To watch Ratatouille is to recognize we're living in another golden age of American animation. Forget all those Styrofoam peanuts disguised as animated movies and look at the Pixar films nestled in the center. The animation's so astonishingly effective it's tempting to take it for granted as we get sucked in by Pixar's trademark energetic plots, keen wit, and terrifically detailed characters, triumphs in their own right. Cars may not have been running on all cylinders, but Ratatouille is another in a growing line of Pixar films that can be treasured by all ages.

Ratatouille, written and directed by Brad Bird (with the support of at least four other scribes), is about a character seized not by some familiar motivating crisis but by an enthusiasm, a passion for cooking. Unfortunately, he's a rat, which makes him Public Enemy No. 1 in the kitchens of Paris. How this rat, named Remy, rises to become the greatest chef in the city is pure fantasy and also pure fun. Real-life foodie Patton Oswalt proves ideal as the plucky rodent, whose brother (Peter Sohn) and father (Brian Dennehy) just don't understand his dream.

Misunderstood and frustrated by the garbage that passes for food to his fellow rats, Remy takes to raiding the kitchen of a little old lady who naps to cooking shows. There, Remy becomes exposed to the philosophy of famous French chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett): "Anyone can cook!" When circumstances land the country rat in Paris, and specifically at the late Gusteau's restaurant, Remy defies death to save a watered-down soup. Remy's soup impresses a critic, making the rat invaluable to a janitor named Linguini (vocally limber Lou Romano), whose handiwork the soup is presumed to be.

The reversal chafes the hide of head chef Skinner (the marvelous Ian Holm), who resolves to see his new celebrity chef fail. The principal bad guy, Skinner is content to sell Gusteau as the face of a tasteless microwave-dinner line—he's the polar opposite of Remy, an artist who's in the food industry for love, not money. The superior vocal work extends to Janeane Garofalo (as a tough chef who tenderizes for Linguini) and Peter O'Toole, blissfully funny as restaurant critic Anton Ego.

Thanks to Bird and his army of animators, Ratatouille is ingeniously choreographed in every way. The cartoon actors step lively with funny slapstick (kids will love seeing Remy—a cross between Cyrano and Gepetto—yank Linguini around like a marionette) and the "camera" floats, rolls, skids, and soars as needed to follow the action. The detailed production design may be unprecedented for an animated feature, with creativity to match: Bird imaginatively visualizes taste as colorful bursts in the mind's eyes of the characters. As for the obligatory lessons, kids will intuit that it's wrong to steal, and it's right to follow their bliss and relish what life has to offer. Bon appetit!

[In a traditional throwback, the short "Lifted" precedes the film: don't be caught out at the snack aisle when you could be enjoying this peppy trifle about an alien abductor on training day.]

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