Monday, July 23, 2007

Depth comes from unlikely places in Ratatouille

There have been precisely three animated movies that have impressed me since Disney's Toy Story brought practicality to bear on the promise of CGI to change the animation landscape in 1996.

Tarzan, the last notable non-CGI animated blockbuster, made me sit up and take notice with the way in which the animators were able to manipulate objects of high detail and move the titular character seamlessly between the front and back of a static backdrop.

The attention to detail and the ability to render it in Pixar's A Bug's Life left me speechless. I remember my eyes darting around the screen so much that they positively hurt when it was all over.

The third movie to fill me with the same sense of wonder about the craft was Ratatouille. It is just as good because the movie itself arrives with an innovative plot filled with hackneyed situations and often forgoes genuine enchantment in favor of quick thrills.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat who is born with a gift. He has a super-sensitive nose and a palette to match, both of which give him a laser-sharp sense of good food. He arrives in a restaurant in Paris which seems to have lost its way. Unbeknownst to the management who understandably don't want rats around, Remy joins forces with Linguini (Lou Romano) to conjure up magical recipes and restore the restaurant back to pole position. Along the way they encounter important life lessons - standard fare for this genre.

There are two exceptional things that save Ratatouille and make it a really good time at the multiplex. First, the canny and versatile Ian Holm shows up as Skinner, the head chef at the restaurant who has a vested interest in seeing the restaurant remain at status quo. Holm sinks his teeth into the role by essaying an unapologetically ridiculous French accent. He makes Skinner smart, pompous, vulnerable, afraid, swashbuckling and driven. Its a hilarious performance which culminates in one rollicking chase scene with Skinner on a scooter.

And the innovative animation is the second one. More than any movie I've seen, Ratatouille is able to deliver terrific depth and perception in frame after frame. (Compare this to, say, the flat and lifeless backdrops of a major blockbuster like Shrek 3.) Although the characters are cartoons, the backdrops are rendered in true form. And by dissolving the sharpness ever so slightly between multiple objects in the backdrop, the animators of the movie have managed to create a fully realized 3D universe that is positively dazzling.

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