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Ratatouille, as you may know, is a vegetable dish from southern France that one does not make in a hurry. Eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers and tomatoes are all cooked separately, then combined in layers in a casserole. It is a slow-but-steady dish, long on chopping and short on wizardry.

Ratatouille, in contrast, is a soufflé. It is as impressive as it is improbable, and you wonder how it was produced. If it were not a great success, it would be a total disaster. Brad Bird masterfully separates sentiment and wit, so that the latter, like the beaten egg whites in a soufflé, can lift his simple tale into the air. His visual base is perfectly seasoned, and he is careful not to saddle his sparkling film with too much tasty complication. And there are no meta moments - the equivalent of peeking into the oven - to remind us that this is "just a movie." Like all delicious food, it is an enchantment.

Ratatouille is not a movie for children that adults can enjoy, too. It is very much a movie for grown-ups that won't bewilder children too much. The little ones will be able to grasp what's going on, and enjoy all the pratfalls. But what will they make of the wonderful moment when Anton Ego, the virulent food critic who is annoyed just find himself back at a restaurant that he has consigned to the tourists, takes a bite of the ratatouille that has just been set before him by the restaurant's anxious owner/waiter. For once, Anton (luxuriantly voiced by Peter O'Toole) is speechless. He is whisked back to his youth, once again a little boy, standing in the doorway of his mother's kitchen on a summer afternoon. He is deeply happy. This is not likely to make a lot of sense to six year-olds.

You don't have to be six years old to be ignorant of haute cuisine, but Ratatouille is utterly unafraid of its audience's limitations. There is very little exposition about the rigors of the professional kitchen. The rodent hero, Rémy (Patton Oswalt) peers through a skylight at the bustle below and identifies the personnel to the ghost of the famous former chef, but that is about all the information that is passed on in verbal form. Everything else is visual, and none of it is crucial. Ratatouille is certainly not about cooking. It's about intrigue and ambition and creativity and working under immense pressure. It tells, as I say, a simple tale.

This is not to say that it does so in a simple way. Anything but. Our human hero, Linguini (Lou Romano), is not introduced right away. We don't meet him until we've had a substantial preliminary adventure story involving Rémy, his issues with his father, Django (Brian Dennehy), and his escape to "Paree." Unlike his friends and relations, Rémy loves good food. He is a great fan of Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), the famous chef who dies after losing a star in Anton Ego's review. Chef Gusteau's motto, "Anyone can cook," encourages Rémy in the belief that he could cook, if only someone would give him the chance.

The chance presents itself in the capital, to which Rémy is floated away in a drain. Of course he winds up at Gusteau's, where all is not as it should be. Now headed by the impish Skinner (Ian Holm), a dishonest and uninspired martinet, the restaurant is really just the springboard for a lot of knock-off food products that the real Chef Gusteau would have had nothing to do with. Skinner's hold on the restaurant is more tenuous than he imagines, for the menial "garbage boy" - Linguini - whom he has just berated will turn out to be Gusteau's heir.

It takes Rémy no time at all to see that Linguini can't cook. Before Linguini can ruin the soup, Rémy dashes into the kitchen to save it, with bits of this and that. The result is sublime. Linguini gets the credit, but is stumped by the problem of how he will make the soup the next night. At about this time, Rémy is discovered and captured. Linguini is ordered to drown him in the Seine.

That doesn't happen. In one impressive touch of imaginative hygiene, Linguini and Rémy communicate with nods and shrugs on the rat's part. When Rémy speaks, it is only to his near and dear. To Linguini, he is more like a very smart (and nimble) dog. In short order, the unlikely allies work out a modus operandi that involves Rémy's pulling tufts of Linguini's hair while concealed by his toque. Children will delight in the clowning that results. Adults may wonder, just a little, how likely it is that the ambitious Colette - the only woman in the kitchen (Janeane Garofalo) - takes a shine to the hapless Linguini. But of course she does.

A glance at the cast fails to show even one name of French provenance. Mr Bird and his company have had the clever idea of going for faked French accents. Just as shrewdly, if less admirably, Linguini and Rémy (and all the other rats as well) speak a very vernacular American; there's a decided Southwestern twang to Mr Oswalt's intonation. The real star of the show is the Pixar animation (and the imagination behind it). There are scenes so faithfully rendered that they look live-action, photographed rather than animated. At others, the full diapason of animated wonders is sounded. Everything happens at a superhuman pace. There's a chase scene worthy of Sylvester and Tweetie, only with an incomparably richer look and feel. And the food, although it's not discussed much, looks not only great, but very up-to-date as well.

Ratatouille is a veritable triomphe. (July 2007)

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