Brad Bird may be the natural heir to the Warner Brothers group. His "Family Dog" segment was one of the few good projects created from Spielberg's "Amazing Stories," (and one of the few that broke the mold of the rather atrophied premise, as well). His The Iron Giant is one of the few cell-animation projects of the last twenty years that can genuinely be called a classic despite not having any songs, or being Disney.
When he signed on with Pixar, one worried that his odd sensibility, but impeccable story sense would fit in or get homogenized. Thankfully, his The Incredibles proved to be a winner, and completely went against the S.O.P. of the studio, creating photo-realistic backgrounds for characters who are clearly designed to be cartoon characters. Some folks quibbled that Bird might be saying something about the privileged when his superheroes were forced to suppress their powers, but that's from the crowd that hasn't read a comic in the last thirty years (or an "X-men" comic in the last forty).
Now, along comes Ratatouille, and it benefits from the advancements in digital production and rendering since The Incredibles, for if anything the backgrounds are even more sophisticated and have the feel of being filmed, while the characters are complete flights of Bird's fancy and design sense. Plus, the movements are far more complicated and fluid, the expressions more minute, and the comic timing (a lot of which is owed to Jerry Lewis) is crack. If you want to see the future of animation and how it can be driven to its full application and imagination, Ratatouille is the place to look. And one can only hope that Pixar continues in its tradition of bringing in new story-tellers in animation to stretch their capabilities for years to come (and the short that comes with it,
Lifted written and directed by former sound designer Gary Rydstrom, is a perfect example of the possibilities**). If everything is run through the John Lasseter filter, the company could lose its potential and grow stale, but films like Ratatouille will keep it at the top of its game and the advancement of the medium for years to come.
2016 Addendum: I unearth this from the DVD pile every so often just to take a look at it to see if, after all the years and Pixar movies and technical advancements, this still holds up. It does. And not because of the animation, which hedged its bet with bipeds by going "full cartoon" with them and away from naturalism—a good choice that seems to have been adapted by every other animation studio working in three dimensions. Water depiction has improved and Nature looks natural now in Pixar movies, for which landscape artists must all applaud.
But it's not the rendering that makes a movie—rendering is important with meat. It is story and story-telling where Pixar has always excelled (with exceptions you could count on a Disneyfied one-digitless hand). Begun by director Jan Pinkava (who directed the Pixar short Geri's Game), Ratatouile ran into story development trouble and Brad Bird, fresh off The Incredibles took over supervision of the film, re-writing parts of it, and doing extensive research in Paris and in cooking classes.
|Remy combining tastes with a visual representation not unlike
Disney's experimentations with jazz.
But, with the spirited inspiration of the late populist Chef Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett) and the opportune presence and cooperation of Gusteau's bastard child Linguini (Lou Romano) in the Gusteau's Restaurant kitchen, the little rat is given the opportunity to shine, a move that brings new interest in the restaurant, as long as the identity of the "little chef" is not found out.
|The various forms of staff at Gusteau's
But, my favorite thing is its sublime ending, which, as a critic (or more appropriately, a person who appreciates such things) I found extraordinarily well-articulated and with its constantly seeking heart in the exact right place. I so impressed me that a truncated version of that monologue (beautifully played by Peter O'Toole) has a permanent place at the bottom of this blog page. It will always be there.
There have been so many great Pixar movies that continue to astonish and entertain (last year's Inside Out blew me away), but I still think Ratatouille is my personal favorite.
* A French person's reply to being asked about Euro-Disney. Apt.
** The really nifty thing about "Lifted" is that it very obviously comes from a Sound-Mixer's personality. I could relate.