Toward the end of Ratatouille, Pixar's latest animated romp, writer-director Brad Bird mounts such a cogent, feeling, pained deconstruction of professional criticism that viewers might almost suspect he's had problems with persnickety critics in the past. But how is that possible, when everything he touches is wonderful? The writer-director behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles (the former a critically beloved, poorly marketed underperformer, the latter a critically beloved smash) and an animation consultant on the likes of King Of The Hill and The Simpsons, Bird has a rare cinematic gift: the ability to stage slam-bang action sequences without neglecting the rich emotional resonance that makes for a great story. Ratatouille never hits the heights of The Incredibles, if only because it's operating on a much smaller and less mythic, culturally resonant stage, but it's solid enough to prove that Bird hasn't let success, critical or otherwise, go to his head.
Patton Oswalt stars as the voice of Remy, a little gray French rat with a sensitive nose and a picky palate; while his family is scarfing down half-rotten trash, he's dreamily following the dictates of the late world-renowned chef Auguste Gusteau, who famously proclaimed, "Anyone can cook." Remy's obsessions nearly get him killed when he ventures into a Paris kitchen, but before long, he and a hapless cooking-impaired nebbish (Lou Romano) team up to wow Paris' foodies. In spite of a number of zippy complications involving a glowering, cadaverous food critic (Peter O'Toole), a snappish love interest (Janeane Garofalo), and a villainous little restaurateur who's prostituting Gusteau's name on products like "microwavable chop-socky pockets," Ratatouille is narratively thinner than Bird's previous films. But he fills in the gaps with gawp-inducing setpieces that move at firework speeds, as the tiny Remy dashes to avoid human-sized hazards, or the rest of the cast works through calamity and chaos.
As always, Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, etc.) leads the growing pack of CGI studios on sheer quality; the visual attention to tiny details is almost distractingly opulent, from the cuts and nicks on the chefs' hands to the way Remy's tiny chest flutters when he's panicked. And Bird aptly nails Pixar's heady house blend of pathos, action, quirk, and sheer good humor. Bird and his co-writers leave room for quiet moments and gentle morals, but for the most part, they send visual gags and verbal punchlines tearing past at an enjoyably demanding speed, whipping up the film's energy at every turn. That makes it a little frothier than Bird's other films, but it's delectable nonetheless.