Despite the vast majority of modern computer-animated children’s films revolving around talking animals being derivative and uninspired, with even the latest Shrek movie having lost much of the lustre that made its predecessors so much fun, every now and then the genre still throws up the odd gem.
With the behind-the-scenes talent involved in this latest outing from animation giants Disney and Pixar – notably writer and co-director Brad Bird, the chap behind the entertaining The Incredibles and superb The Iron Giant – the signs were always good. But even so, after the disappointment of the similar vermin-centred Flushed Away earlier this year, who would have thought that a film with a hard-to-spell name revolving around a master chef rat in a Parisian restaurant could possibly have bucked the current trend for animated children’s films to be tediously unoriginal?
In the States, perhaps thanks to a summer with decidedly less than its fair share of good children’s films, Ratatouille has been almost unanimously hailed as something of a masterpiece. From veteran critic Roger Ebert making the rare move of calling for a sequel through to the mighty New York Times’ description of the film as “nearly flawless”, if you follow the American critics, this is a movie with so much positive hype that it’s hard not to approach it with great expectations.
Yet in the UK the build-up has been decidedly modest by the standards of most modern blockbusters. Whereas most big films these days see weeks, if not months of pre-publicity, the marketing people behind Ratatouille seem to have been considerably more restrained.
Perhaps this can be put down to the lack of recognisably big-name and glamorous young stars. The best-known actors in it are the venerable Brits Peter O’Toole (on glorious form as food critic Anton Ego) and Ian Holm – who while being well known and well liked are hardly the sort of names on which to sell a children’s movie. Then there’s the lead rat, Remy, voiced by TV character comic Patton Oswalt, best known as the slightly odd-looking Spence in US sitcom The King of Queens, a show with barely a following in the UK.
Yet it is in this casting that Ratatouille’s uniqueness can be found. Rather than pick the latest pretty young face to provide the voice of a lead character, merely to gain coverage in the press, the filmmakers have opted for genuine talent. With such a finely nuanced script, teen heartthrobs and tabloid-fodder starlets would surely lack the ability to convey merely with their voices the subtlety and depth of the emotion and humour that runs throughout. Because Ratatouille manages to combine the best of Brad Bird’s two previous big directorial outings – the broad comedy of The Incredibles with the engaging humanity of The Iron Giant. These are not mere silly cartoon critters, but real characters with whom it is possible to genuinely engage, rather than merely watch.
In this combination, Bird has uncovered another route to that much-desired magic formula of a children’s film that adults will also enjoy. Where Shrek achieved it through movie references and parody, Ratatouille manages to pull in the interest of mum and dad through wonderful characterisation and an engagingly amusing storyline. A blessed relief after the endless array of tedious cartoon movies of the last few years, expect this to easily win Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars, and for it to find a fond place on your list of favourite children’s films for years to come.