All right, Brad Bird, I’ll take the bait. Ratatouille director/co-writer Bird includes a food critic by the name of Anton Ego as a major character in his latest Pixar animated feature. Ego sports prominent canine teeth and writes in a cavernous study that, viewed from above, resembles a massive casket—because critics, like vampires, are parasitic creatures who survive only by sucking the life’s-blood from others. Ego expresses outrage that something he has deemed unworthy of attention is garnering praise. And in the end, Ego acknowledges that his work isn’t even as valuable as a mediocre example of that about which he opines.
Merely acknowledging this nudge to the ribs of critics risks overwhelming anything a critic might actually have to say about Ratatouille. Praise for the film could suggest being cowed into submission; anything less than a rave would be evidence of thin-skinned dish-it-out-but-can’t-take-it-ness. But while it’s easy to understand M. Night Shyamalan’s use of a sneering critic as a character in Lady in the Water, the decision here initially seems baffling. Not even Iranian cinema has been as universally adored by professional critics as the Pixar brand. It’s like Bob Barker calling out the Humane Society.
Perhaps Bird, a Flathead native, knew his film wasn’t perfect. There’s a surprisingly familiar feel to the tale of Remy, a country rat who’s convinced that his destiny isn’t scavenging through garbage, but creating haute cuisine. He’s the latest in a long kid-entertainment line that stretches from Hermie the misfit elf to the tap-dancing penguin of Happy Feet: the “be yourself even though everyone else thinks you’re weird” protagonist.
The problem is Ratatouille sags where other Pixar films soared because Remy makes for a surprisingly muted hero, and nearly every supporting character similarly lacks a breakout presence. As in some of Disney’s soggier fare from recent years, only the villains make a strong impression, including, of course, Ego himself.
Bird stabs at a last-minute redemption by having Ego realize the one true value of a critic is “the defense and discovery of the new.” Which, I suppose, makes Bird’s willingness to mock critics a bit more understandable: Ratatouille marks the first occasion where a Pixar film manages to get only the visual presentation right, while serving up a recipe we’ve sampled many times before.