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That Rat Can Cook 

by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's a simple recipe for enjoying the newest computer-animated offering from the folks at Disney-Pixar: You've got to love food, you have to be able to put up with the French, and you need to have an affinity for rats.

Here's hoping I haven't lost any potential audience members. Truth is, the only prerequisite for Ratatouille is to be the kind of audience member who digs technically groundbreaking, wonderfully entertaining movies. And no one out there has proved himself as well in these areas as Brad Bird, who, before this one, gave us The Iron Giant (woefully underrated) and The Incredibles (spectacular).

This one stays away from the former's Cold War politics and the latter's sometimes terrifying action to spin a story of dreams, passions, family relationships and romance.

And yes, it's about rats.

Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt) lives in the French countryside with his father Django (Brian Dennehy) and brother Emil (Peter Sohn) along with the rest of their rat clan, scavenging for food wherever they can find it. Remy, with a super-sensitive snout, is admired by others because he has the ability to sniff out poison. Dad is always lecturing everyone to stay out of kitchens, to stay away from humans, because you'll only find danger.

But Remy is a rebel... with a cause. He doesn't approve of eating garbage. He doesn't even like to walk around on all fours, preferring to stand on his hind legs so he won't have to continually wash his hands before eating. His motto is: If you are what you eat, I only want to eat the good stuff.

Circumstances lead to a separation from the clan, via a wild trip through a sewer system, complete with a truly astounding "raft" ride over swirling waters -- a major animation accomplishment -- which washes Remy up in the midst of bustling Paris.

Drying off, he realizes he's arrived at the insanely popular Gusteau's Restaurant, founded by Remy's hero, the late chef Gusteau (played as a sprightly, ghostly presence by Brad Garrett).

But it's not enough for Remy to have found an earthly heaven, where he can sneak around and eat the best food in the world. No, Bird's script leads to the revelation that Remy is also a master chef and, wouldn't you know it, Gusteau's is in need of just such a talent.

Never satisfied to keep things simple, Bird's complex menu of storylines introduces us to Linguini (Lou Romano), the newly-hired, fairly talentless garbage boy; Colette (Janeane Garofalo), the impatient, fiery, lone woman working in the male-dominated kitchen; Skinner (Ian Holm), the nasty, diminutive chef who is reminiscent of Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther series; Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), the powerful and egotistical food critic; and many other colorful folks, none of whom would approve of a rat in the kitchen -- never mind the idea of a rat doing the cooking.

But whew! This rat is good! He and Linguini -- who desperately wants to cook -- figure out a working relationship that makes both of them stars, makes the restaurant even more popular, and piques the interest of Ego, who once detested the place but who now decides to return for another review.

Bird and his master animators are on top of their game here. Cameras regularly follow the characters around, even when the characters are dozens of running rats. Though the script is packed with crackling dialogue, some of it side-splittingly funny, plenty of emotion is conveyed with just images and gestures. First example: The first meeting between Remy and Linguini (Remy can understand English, but he can't speak to humans), during which the rat conveys his meaning with a series of gestures and expressions. Second example (and my favorite scene): When Ego has a taste of the vegetable stew for which the movie is named, his entire youth comes rushing back to him.

And there's so much more. The Pixar animators have achieved perfection at every step of the way. (Wait till you see the look of wine being poured into a glass.) Action sequences are truly seat-grabbing. When a certain "awful truth" is revealed among the kitchen staff, the soundtrack swells with soft but stirring strings. The vocal performances by Ian Holm and Peter O'Toole are Oscar-worthy.

And best of all, Ratatouille is like a fine meal: It gets better and better as it goes along.

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