Chef Special

In Ratatouille, Pixar serves up a picture-perfect tale of heart-friendly haute cuisine.

Simple things done well can be spectacular works of art. Less-than-ideal messengers can end up delivering the news that everyone has been waiting to hear. There's something absolutely pure about standing up and being yourself, never more especially than when the whole world is telling you to seriously consider just being someone else (usually someone more convenient) instead. While it's true that we're all meant for different destinies, it's also true that destiny is an equal opportunity employer ' where we are born doesn't have to determine where we end up, if only we are willing to try. All of which is a fancy way of saying that sometimes a rat needs to be chased from the cupboard, and sometimes he just needs to be given a cookbook.

A summer animation about haute cuisine that's aimed at the kiddie-meal crowd, Pixar's Ratatouille does the latter, the end result a heaping helping of good-humored intelligence garnished with just the right grace notes of silliness and charm. The tale of a country rodent who finds his love of food propelling him to play the (well-disguised) role of big-city chef, Ratatouille is wholly unexpected, a lovely lark of a film, beautifully rendered and fully realized.

Defying his clannish, country, content-with-crumbs family, a wannabe chef sneaks into the kitchen of a once-great-but-now-faded Paris eatery and operates behind the scenes to restore it to its former glory. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. This chef-in-training can't step anywhere near the kitchen without creating a tempest among the teapots. Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat.

Where Remy's more refined tastes come from, he never seems to know; he just knows that his family doesn't understand them. The scavenged food and garbage that satisfies his father Django (Brian Dennehy) and brother Emile (Peter Sohn) only leaves him empty and looking for something different. He discovers that something different during one of his forays into the kitchen of a country farmhouse, a television cooking show proclaiming that "anyone can cook." Remy keeps returning to that kitchen, pilfering spices and reading recipes, until one day the little French farm granny spies him. Pretty soon, the entire rat clan is exposed and running for their lives.

Separated from his family in the frenzy, Remy eventually washes up somewhere in the sewers beneath Paris, his only company the flittering ghost of his TV chef (Brad Garrett) who leads our rodent hero to his old restaurant, Gusteau's. The five-star establishment has slipped to only three under the new chef, Skinner (Ian Holm), a tyrant with a taste for commercialization. When he's not berating his beleaguered staff, he's arranging for Gusteau's once-great name to appear on mass-produced, frozen entrees.

Remy and the hapless Linguini (Lou Romano) enter the same night. Young Linguini just wants a job that he can hang on to; Remy wants to soak up the experience of a real-live kitchen. A series of misadventures puts our two heroes together, Remy tucked safely under Linguini's toque playing food-preparation puppetmaster. The duo, of course, creates a series of dishes that impresses diners ' creating, in turn, major complications for their precarious professional arrangement. A contested will, a kitchen romance in the making and a marvelously drawn, maliciously voiced food critic (Peter O'Toole) add spice to all that stewing.

The lush details of Pixar animation manage to make every digital dish mouthwatering. Soups and sauces gleefully bubble and boil, fresh fruits and vegetables roly-poly across cutting boards, and finished entrees exit the kitchen's swinging doors like the tiny little masterpieces they are. The world outside receives the same vibrant treatment. Remy's flume ride of an escape from the farm provides that all-important action-adventure ingredient, but the rush of water and underwater confusion is carefully inked cartoon chaos. Paris glimmers, the lights of the Eiffel Tower shining in the distance, eclipsing the fog-shrouded street lamps.

The characters, though, are what keep Ratatouille fresh. If you have to put a rat in the kitchen, Remy is a cute little blue bundle of expression and verve. Linguini is an oversized kid, right down to his red Chuck Taylors; the animators give him an incredibly flexible spine, which Remy pulls around, making Linguini remind us of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. When Remy's rat clan shows up in ever-increasing numbers, they are a sea of wide white eyes. The film's sweetest character, though, is the fearsome film critic Anton Ego. Impossibly tall, imposingly angular, Ego is exaggerated and absolutely alive. Like all of Ratatouille's characters, he is headed for a big twist ' and headed there with lipsmacking zest.