RATATOUILLE – Blu-ray review

If you’ve read the interview we just published with “Ratatouille” director Brad Bird, you know how high he is on Blu-ray. So high, in fact, that when I asked him to sign the slipcover of mine at the Social Hollywood launch party, he drew an arrow to the Blu-ray Disc symbol and wrote, “YAH!”

I can certainly understand the enthusiasm a filmmaker would have for either HD medium. If we get excited seeing something in such Hi-Res clarity that it almost takes your breath away, imagine how fantastic it must be for a filmmaker to know that the print which people are watching in their home theaters has the exact same colors as the film master, and (if you have the right equipment) the same resolution.

And Disney-Pixar just keeps getting better and better, with animators somehow finding new ways to push the envelope every outing. In this one, witness all the kitchen detail–the dented and scratched pots and pans, the patina on buildings, the play of light, and a particularly impressive sequence that has would-be-mouse-chef Remy falling from a skylight into a sink full of soapy water.

Part of the philosophy at Pixar has been to create a completely believable new world for every feature, and they’ve certainly done so here. Their rats-eye-view of rodents scurrying into a crack in a wall goes SO far beyond anything we’ve seen cartoon mice do that you can’t help but be awed as these things scurry past studs and electrical wiring, plumbing pipes and exposed nails to get from point A to point Z. Same with the food that we see prepared in the kitchen of famous Parisian chef Gusteau. Everything looks real enough to eat, and you don’t have to have a cartoon appetite to think so.

The voice talents are also impressive, starting with Patton Oswalt, who’s outstanding as Remy, the mouse who wants more than garbage out of life. So is Brad Garrett (with a French accent) as Chef Gusteau, the legendary author of “Anyone Can Cook” who was an inspiration to little Remy . . . and who died of sadness when he lost a star after a bad review. And Peter O’Toole, whose droll delivery brings sourpuss food critic Anton Ego to quasi-villainous life. Peter Sohn nails Remy’s low-class brother Emile, while Lou Romano is perfect as the hapless Linguini, the human who comes to Chez Gusteau with a letter of introduction from none other than Gusteau’s former mistress. A DNA-proven heir to the throne? Not if head chef Skinner (Ian Holm) can help it.

The premise, if you think about it, is nothing short of outrageous, as Bird recently joked with journalists:

“It’s about cooking, it’s set in France, there’s this rat and he gets advice and inspiration from an imaginary dead chef,” and the rat does all the cooking while a human is basically his puppet.

Sounds twisted, doesn’t it? And yet it’s a strange combination of follow-your-dreams warmth and realize-your-limitations reality-check. On the one side, Remy has a nose for food, but he doesn’t just want to use his talents to check garbage for poison before his rat brethren ingest it. Inspired by Chef Gusteau’s “Anyone Can Cook,” which he sees on TV in a house he’s food-raiding, he follows his nose to Gusteau’s restaurant, which is now run by head-chef Skinner. By contrast, the clumsy food-challenged but likeable Linguini knows he’s no genius. Hired as a janitor, basically, he has no dreams other than to follow his own heart, which is thumping in the direction of an attractive yet somehow intimidating chef-wannabe named Colette (Janeane Garofalo). But when Linguini spills a soup and tries to spice it up, throwing in all the wrong stuff, and Remy corrects it so well that Skinner is forced to promote his lowly janitor, good things start to happen for both Linguini and the little mouse who guides him.

As John J. Puccio wrote in a review of the DVD he did with Jason P. Vargo, it’s more than a little ironic that the first film to come from the union of Disney and Pixar is a rat, “since, after all, Disney is the house that the mouse built.” Like Disney in those early years, I might add, Pixar also seems to be going all-out on the visuals while offering a fairly conservative storyline. You just don’t get the same level of low-brow, wise-guy comedy that comes out of other studios, as if this bunch is sending the message that its beneath them. They’re able to entertain because of fine writing, a solid emotional through-line, and the sheer genius of their animation.

The DVD was superb in its quality, but the Blu-ray is even more pristine. Compare frames and you’ll see that while the colors are comparable there’s a slightly greater level of detail in the HD version. It’s especially noticeable in some of the more breathtaking shots, like the one which has Remy falling into that kitchen sink. The film is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and it looks fantastic.

The audio is a booming English PCM 5.1 uncompressed (48 kHz/24-bit) soundtrack with additional options in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. It’s a rich sound that picks up every subtle note of the background music with all the sensitivity of a spaniel’s ears.

“Cars” and “Ratatouille” were released on the same day, and interestingly enough they reflect two different ways of looking at Blu-ray bonus features. “Cars” was all about the slick pop-up menu, with a dashboard on the bottom that allowed you to select something while the movie kept playing. The upside is that you can still watch the movie; the downside is that you’re not paying much attention to the movie while you’re scrolling through the extras, and if you don’t act quickly, the menu screen disappears and you have to start all over again. “Ratatouille,” with it’s quaint tale of Paris cookery, has menu screens that are more antique-looking and operate in a more conventional way. You click on the pop-up and the movie pauses while you peruse the menu screen, watch whatever, and then return to the film.

This disc has a decent amount of bonus features. All of the DVD features are here, some of them fly-on-the-wall stuff and some of them quite polished. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to sit in on an animation briefing, where the director addresses his staff, there are 13 such meetings to choose from. There are also three fairly long deleted scenes and five deleted shots to watch, a tribute to Dan Lee (one of the creative talents who passed away mid-way through production), a humorous short film (“Lifted”), an animated short feature that has Remy and his brother providing a brief positive history of rats, and my favorite, a featurette called “Fine Food and Film: A Conversation with Brad Bird and Thomas Keller.” This cleverly edited segment focuses on the creative similarities between cooking (Keller is the chef and owner of The French Laundry, the only American eatery to receive three Michelin stars) and filmmaking. Both Bird and Keller are shown as talking heads and in their element, and it’s quite a thoughtful and eye-opening extra.

Exclusive to Blu-ray is “Gusteau’s Gourmet Game,” which is difficult at first, but once you figure out what you’re supposed to do it’s not bad. Basically you have to click on the right buttons to find the recipe for an order that’s posted, then scroll and click on the ingredients in order and press enter to finally “serve” the dish. It’s kind of like that Lucy episode where the chocolates on a conveyor belt start popping out with greater speed. Little children will be frustrated by it, but game-savvy kids and those ages 7 and older ought to be able to handle it fine.

Bottom Line:
“Ratatouille” is a delightful entrée from the new combined Disney-Pixar studio, so much so that you have to wonder if, like the dead chef who shows Remy the way, the ghosts of Disney’s legendary Grand Old Men might not have been hovering about.