A gifted chef must overcome workplace adversity and a lack of valid employment credentials in the struggle to showcase his peerless talents. The plot of “Ratatouille” sounds more like fodder for a Michael Moore documentary than the latest Pixar feature. Then again, the writer-director of “Ratatouille” is the enormously talented Brad Bird of “The Incredibles” and “The Iron Giant.”
The culinary master in this case is an animated rodent, but the thematically ambitious “Ratatouille” slyly uses its subject matter to prod the thorny issues of immigration in the United States. Don’t worry: The movie avoids slogging through a political tract. It is smarter than that.
“Ratatouille” is as light as the egg soufflé its protagonist dreams of whipping up. But Bird is such an astute storyteller that he takes the standard sports movie formula — underdog surmounting tremendous odds — and infuses it with cultural significance. “The Incredibles” looked critically at how the navel-gazing tendencies of American culture can make young people think mediocre dreams and accomplishments are OK. Like the best pop entertainment, that film avoided self-righteousness, while recognizing that buoyant and inventive action scenes are a great way to illustrate the themes associated with a family of temporarily powerless superheroes.
Still, even with their deft cultural commentaries, Bird never forgets his movies’ primary purpose is to entertain. “Ratatouille” is set in Paris, widely considered the culinary capital of the world (although NYC foodies might brandish steak knives at such an assertion), but its characters might as well have “Made in America” stamped on their foreheads. The rodent Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) has a preternatural gift of smell that lands him the job of food-poison inspector for his colony of rats. But his sixth sense for sniffing out unique food combinations leads to a jarring incident that separates him from his family and lands him outside the kitchen of Gusteau’s, a once top-rated restaurant that has fallen out of favor with food critics since its founder’s death.
Remy is such a snobbish gourmand that he refuses to crawl on all fours like other rodents — it dirties his paws. Ego-driven, he tries ingratiate himself to the restaurant’s kitchen staff. Remy strikes a deal with Linguini (Lou Romano), a nebbish human who may be Gusteau’s illegitimate son but whose nonexistent cooking skills relegate him to a job as the kitchen janitor. Hiding under Linguini’s chef’s hat, Remy works as a puppet master pulling various locks of the boy’s hair to direct him toward the right ingredients.
The plot mechanics can flatten the characters into one-note messengers of storytelling platitudes — Dream big! Persevere! — but the nimble pacing and lustrous animation take up the slack. Like any great food movie, “Ratatouille” knows creating a great meal is almost a sensual act of alchemy. By exploring the resonant theme of how cultural prejudices become mousetraps for ambition, “Ratatouille” cooks up much more than empty calories.