'The Incredibles' was a work of genius, the film that got me genuinely enthusiastic about Pixar. The follow-up, John Lasseter's 'Cars', attracted some of the most indifferent reviews the studio has yet received. Its main failing - so the critical consensus seemed to have it - was that it wasn't 'The Incredibles'.
Personally, I enjoyed 'Cars': even if it's not the out-and-out masterpiece its predecessor was, it's still a damn good film - with a great ending. And there's no arguing that the level of animation raised the bar yet further.
Then came 'Ratatouille'. It arrived on a wave of publicity that made the marketing campaign for 'Revenge of the Sith' look reserved. It had a title that didn't exactly roll off the tongue (the posters featured a pronunciation guide!) and it was about a rat who enjoyed cooking.
A rat? I thought. In a restaurant? This doesn't look good.
I was wrong. I was about as wrong as I've ever been about anything. 'Ratatouille' is Pixar's cleverest, most nuanced, most imaginative, most beautifully animated work to date.
Where to start on what makes it so great?
Brad Bird's script and direction. The very idea of a rat taking advice from the ghost of a dead chef as he teams up with an incompetent dishwasher/garbage boy to create culinary masterpieces which turn around the fortunes of an ailing restaurant calls not so much for a suspension of disbelief but a bloody great industrial crane to winch up the audience's disbelief, lower it onto one of those low-loaders that are so big and so wide that the truck towing it needs a police escort, and haul it off to a warehouse the size of Texas. Bird achieves this by taking time to establish character and situation, the main character here being Remy the rat (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt).
The first act sets up Remy as a connoisseur of good food, his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) as an archetypal rat living off the barely edible (Remy's attempts to broaden Emile's palate provide much of the comedy in the early scenes), and their over-bearing father Django (Brian Dennehy) as the pack leader. Django scorns Remy's dietary refinements and insists that Remy is just a rat, the same as the rest of the pack. The conflict between them - family vs. individuality; the human perception of Remy as vermin vs. Remy's desire to integrate with a world beyond the pack - gives the film a surprising depth and poignancy, particularly when Django shows Remy a shop window filled with traps, poisons and the dangling corpses of rats thus disposed of.
Human machinations are just as insensitive elsewhere. Remy's infiltration of a farmhouse kitchen (Django and the pack are all nested in the rafters) sees the little old lady who lives there go psycho with a shotgun, almost demolishing her home in her obsession with blasting the rodents. Fleeing the carnage, the pack heads for a nearby river where Remy becomes separated from them. Washed up in a sewer beneath Paris, Remy goes above ground, guided by the spirit of deceased restauranteur Gusteau (Brad Garrett), and finds himself embroiled in shady dealings at Gusteau's old restaurant, where current chef Skinner (Ian Holm) plots to retain ownership of the establishment when he discovers Gusteau had a natural heir.
It is against this background that Remy forms an unlikely partnership with Linguini (Lou Romano), a complete clutz working a dead-end job at the restaurant. They hit a winning streak with Remy's inspired creations, but things are complicated by Skinner's increasing suspicions, the attentions of vituperative food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a prying health inspector and a budding romance between Liguini and fellow chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo).
Then the pack find Remy and again he is torn between dedication to family and the desire to prove himself ...
'Ratatouille' has an intricate, multi-layered script. Sure, there's plenty of fast-moving set-pieces - most notably a chase through the streets of Paris and a mass raid by the pack on the restaurant - but Bird's emotional investment in his characters is what counts. Just as attentive and detailed is the animation, which even bests that of 'Cars'. Instead of waxing lyrical about how astounding textured everything is, let me just say this: halfway through seeing 'Ratatouille', sitting in Nottingham's Cineworld and my stomach growling even though I'd eaten before coming out, I turned to Paula and whispered, "We're going a restaurant the moment this ends." The cooking scenes are so evocative you can almost smell the food.
Some films make me laugh, some make me cry. Some films transport me in the world they create. Some make me feel infinitely better about things. 'Ratatouille' does all of these - there's a lovely vignette where a simple meal evokes a childhood memory that's damn near had me blubbing on more than one occasion - as well as making me hungry. I can't think of any other film I can say that about.