A rat with baby-blue fur scampers from the sewer to the shadows and crevices of Paris, France, and the camera follows him from behind. Once inside the walls of Parisian row housing, the rat sprints from house to house, room to room. He is on a quest for food, and we are seeing not just the exotic details of his world (the interior of these walls is surprisingly charming, for all its squalor), but telling details of the human world, too. Most of the latter are shop-worn caricatures of the French, but in Ratatouille they get a laugh because the perspective is fresh and unexpected.
Suddenly the rat stops, the camera sweeps over his shoulder and takes in everything he sees. He has arrived at the kitchen of a once-famous restaurant. It is immediately apparent that this rat is becoming aware of his deepest aspirations. He wants desperately to leave the Rat World and join The Real World. And so, alas, does this movie.
A city, a kitchen, a cook from humble origins who wants to be a star. The previously unseen is abandoned for the familiar. The viewer's heart sinks.
And just how is a movie-lovin' guy supposed to approach a Pixar product? This is the group of people responsible for some of the most spectacular and emotionally resonant American films of the last two decades. Monsters, Inc. is dazzlingly unique and one of my top-ten cinematic faves. Toy Story 1 & 2 were arguably the best original and sequel to hit the silver screens since The Godfather 1 & 2. To watch a Pixar film was to enter a vigorously imagined Other world, populated by recognizably Real people. So the last two Pixar productions fell considerably short of this standard — is that such a crime? They're still more compelling entertainment than, say, Happily N'ever After.
Admitting to viewer dissatisfaction with a Pixar film feels akin to treason — particularly after Ratatouille closes with a formerly-villainous critic lecturing his audience about what a bunch of self-satisfied parasites critics are (lazily feeding like vampires off the lifeblood of artistry, and all that). But here, too, I chafe. This is the second film written and directed by Brad Bird that trumpets the glories of exceptionalism, and while the A Star Is Born narrative has its appeal, it only needs to be repeated once before it wears out its welcome. If you're exceptional, you don't tell — you do.
Cars and Ratatouille both conclude with morals that sound a lot like corporate mission statements: character is more important than victory, and everyone could stand to work at being receptive to the exceptional coming from unexpected sources. Those are fine sentiments for an entertainment giant to ascribe to. I expect John Lasseter and Brad Bird really, truly believe in them. I'm also hoping Pixar takes them seriously enough to once again deliver the truly exceptional.
Post-script: here are some snarky thoughts I had after encountering some post-The Incredibles chatter. In hindsight I think I made a mountain out of a molehill — "too ordinary" "not ordinary enough." Looks like I have trouble making up my own mind. The Incredibles "twas" indeed a good movie: I enjoyed the Bond-villain lair, the camper/rocket-ride back to the city, the discovery of Jack-Jack's abilities. But I still think my response was in tune with what I was reading.