- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Pixar’s long-awaited “Ratatouille” has so far passed the critical taste test, with the country’s most discerning palates raving about how it has “all the right ingredients” and makes for a “delicious meal.” For those of us Pixar die-hards who even loved “Cars,” however, the animated film about rodents in the kitchen is missing a vital spice.

Yes, “Ratatouille” has the right filmmaker wearing the chef’s hat: Brad Bird, the man who won an Oscar for his brilliant 2004 animated flick “The Incredibles.”

Yes, it has that gorgeous Pixar animation working for it. From dewy Parisian street scenes to zany rat action sequences, the animators just nail it — as always. Avoiding the eerie taste that taints ultra-realist films like “Polar Express,” the studio pours in equal parts of dazzlingly realistic backgrounds and effects and whimsical, soft-edged elements, cooking up the kind of delightful, dreamy visuals we’ve come to expect from this crew.

Yes, “Ratatouille” has the requisite and rather touching moral message between the lines of its recipe, and its story isn’t bad either.

The film follows Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a sewer rat who aspires to culinary greatness. His biggest inspiration is the legendary chef Auguste Gusteau (“Everybody Loves Raymond’s” Brad Garrett), inventor of the motto “anyone can cook” — or, in this case, “anything can cook.”

When Remy skitters away from his garbage-guzzling family one day, he stumbles onto a young gentleman named Linguini (Lou Romano), who just happens to be working in Gusteau’s five-star restaurant as a trash toter.

Linguini is a shrill-voiced, scrawny screw-up who doesn’t know his chevre from his herbes de Provence, but under the right circumstances, he may be capable of gastronomic genius. Those circumstances are: with Remy standing atop his head, concealed by the chef’s hat, moving the boy’s arms like a puppeteer would.

Much to the surprise and chagrin of his kitchenmates (voiced by Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo and others) Linguini’s derring-do in the kitchen impresses even the sourest of critics: Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole, a wonderful choice). But as the “master” chef’s head swells, he begins to get sloppy with his big secret. People are starting to have suspicions, and Remy’s family is starting to have rumbly bellies.

Will someone smell a rat?

We’re not giving the ending away, but the lesson that Pixar and Disney want to share is obvious: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Somehow, though, a rodent-infested restaurant seems like one of the most unappetizing ways to present this concept.

It’d be an easier sell if the characters were as captivating as “The Incredibles” family and “Monsters, Inc.’s” Mike and Sulley, but both leads here are a little bland.

Here we arrive at the missing spice: “Ratatouille” plates up a fine-looking product that rivals anything the other studios are serving up, yet it’s lacking that Pixar Pop. That zippy edge. That fanciful twist, which, like a rollercoaster ride, makes your eyes dialate and your stomach flip a bit.

Where did it go?

Those who saw “Meet the Robinsons” might have an idea; that was Disney’s first animated film after it purchased Pixar in 2006. Coming off the lame “Chicken Little,” this was quite a rebound for Disney, showcasing a new vibrancy — possibly the result of its new family member. Pixar’s first film post-takeover, on the other hand, seems influenced by its parent corporation — closer to a solid two-dimensional animated flick like “The Little Mermaid” than an eye-popping computer-driven feat like “Toy Story 2.”

All compliments to the chefs, but you may want to work on the balance of powers in the kitchen if you really want to wow us.

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