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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ratatouille serves up bountiful cinematic feast

Since that screaming train engine bolted out at startled filmgoers during the turn of the last century, our best cinema miraculously makes us believe in the unbelievable. No other art form is so founded on the suspension of disbelief, and I know my most profound cinematic experiences have come when I am no longer in any doubt about what I am seeing. Cinema allows us a raw, visceral association with the images on screen and our own experiences. This magnificent power to tap into our hopes and fears also makes cinema the most manipulative of art forms. The master of this manipulation was Walt Disney. In Disney's films you could become whatever you wanted-puppet to boy, apprentice to sorcerer, washing girl to princess. Over the span of eighty or so minutes, his animation revealed our own naive wishes. Disney's golden age of animated features ended in the late '50s, and over the next forty or so years the genre never came close to achieving the impact of his films.

Toy Story arrived in 1995 from Pixar Studios. Its simple, heartfelt story reminded me how much I loved the early Disney films. Over the next decade, Pixar released one gem after another-A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monster's Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. I saw most in the theater, and made sure I gobbled them up when they were released on DVD. These films brought a more modern, post-Dr. Spock perspective to the animated feature. The characters struggled with identity, purpose, and loss on an intimacy level that the live-action feature films of recent vintage could barely suggest. I must admit I have not seen and do not own Cars; the ugly trailer and mediocre reviews scared me off. I did not want Pixar to disappoint me.

Ratatouille, their latest feature, is maybe their most unlikely tale yet as it is their first to truly deal with real-world human characters. The movie is set in France, where a young rat with a well-honed palette finds himself suddenly not only in Paris, but in the restaurant whose recently deceased chef speaks to him from beyond the grave. There this most unlikely rat meets his equally unlikely partner, a stumbling cleaning boy in badly need of a job and some direction. Well, we know what magic can be made from this. But the people of Pixar prod deeper, forging a film which struggles with not only conflicts of class but with our own expectations of art and culture. Each character brings with him an ardent humanity, be it rat or sous chef. No film has dealt with the dualities of criticism and appreciation as tenderly as Ratatouille. If you walk out of this film unmoved than you have never longed to create art that will last forever, as this film surely will.

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