Move over, Jamie Oliver

Pixar's latest offering is mouth-watering - if you can stomach a meal served by rats


Ratatouille is a wonderful, wistful comedy, and a sparkling return to form for the computer animation studio Pixar after last year's lacklustre Cars, but I have one niggling problem with it. The film is about Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a rural misfit who can't stomach the junk food his family expects him to eat. He flees to Paris, where he winds up at the legendary restaurant Gusteau's. The establishment is in decline under its new head chef, Skinner (Ian Holm), who is cheapening the brand with microwave meals like Tooth Pick'n'Chicken, but Remy reverses its fortunes. You can just picture Jamie Oliver crying his little faux-cockney eyes out with joy at the film's vision of a world liberated from Turkey Twizzlers.

And my issue with all this? Well, Remy is a rat. Admittedly, that still makes him a superior life form to the likes of Nigella, Gordon and Marco, but he's a rodent nonetheless. My children gasped at Remy's culinary magic, perhaps realising for the first time that, contrary to what they witness whenever I cook for them, saucepans can be used for purposes other than burning tinned soup. Me? I watched this rat scampering around the kitchen and went through a mental roll-call of all the treats not listed on the menu at Gusteau's: salmonellosis, leptospirosis, ringworm . . .

At least the film-makers have done their utmost to placate us squeamish ratophobes. Care is taken to show Remy walking on his hind legs to keep his front paws clean. And, for much of the time, he is cooking by proxy only. He befriends Linguini (Lou Romano), a garbage boy harbouring dreams of becoming a chef, and hides beneath his toque, orchestrating the lad's movements at the stove by pulling his hair like a puppeteer yanking a marionette's strings.

The rodents aside, Ratatouille looks absolutely delicious, easily meriting a place alongside foodfests such as Tampopo and Eat Drink Man Woman. We've come to take Pixar's technological leaps for granted, but the colours and textures in Ratatouille are more heightened than ever, from an edible-looking Paris to the grub itself. The mushroom that Remy carries on his shoulder like a parasol has a mottled golden hue after being struck by lightning; the omelette he cooks for Linguini is moist and springy to the touch; and there's a succulent gag when one of the rats tenderises a steak by using it as a punchbag. The very sensation of eating is visualised, too: when Remy combines the flavours of strawberry and cheese, the screen fizzes with gaily coloured Catherine wheels. Don't be surprised if the children in the cinema ditch their popcorn and storm the concessions counter, demanding pan-fried sea bass with coriander velouté and a smooth brandy to follow.

It wouldn't be Pixar without some life-improving subtext, but the film's message about the importance of experimentation and the democratic power of art is sincere and sophisticated. There's even redemption for the wittily named restaurant critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a human poker straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. The director Brad Bird once worked on the animated TV show The Critic, about a film reviewer who is a complete loser - personally, I always found it far-fetched. But I'm getting paranoid that Bird has something against my profession. To judge by Anton, he's suggesting that we're desiccated, friendless malcontents with bad posture from hunching over our typewriters. Frankly, I resent that. I haven't used a typewriter in years.

Princess, released on 19 October, is also animated - but as it begins with a man discovering his pregnant, drug-addled sister participating in a pornographic film shoot, it's hardly fun for all the family. In fact, it's not much fun for anyone. Sis kicks the bucket, leaving her brother to care for her disturbed daughter, which he does in between gruesomely despatching assorted thugs and porn barons. The initial novelty of scandalous material rendered in soft-toned drawings, with occasional live-action flashbacks, quickly palls. This Danish picture exhibits a cynical bloodlust. It's crude in both senses of the word, and animated in only one.

Pick of the week

Three films based on fact:

The Counterfeiters (15)
dir: Stefan Ruzowitzky
A fascinating drama about the Nazis’ attempts to forge dollars.

Control (15)
dir: Anton Corbijn
The story of the life and death of Joy Division’s frontman Ian Curtis.

A Mighty Heart (15)
dir: Michael Winterbottom
And a no-frills thriller about the kidnap and murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power