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There are so many reasons why Oscar-winning Pixar (Toy Story, Cars) has become the gold standard for CGI animation and why pretenders to the throne fail so miserably. Take Dreamworks, for instance. They struggle to imitate Pixar's successes by creating sly alternative realities where zoo animals or sharks or fairy tale monsters crack wise in thinly veiled spoofs of our own world. But capping on Starbucks or mocking The Dating Game is cheap and easy, resulting in laughs that have a six-month half-life. Films like Shrek 3 and Chicken Little endlessly remind you of their satirical "wit" because they've nothing else to offer. Worse, these kid's flicks are treated like bloated commercials for merchandise tie-ins and bad pop music soundtracks. The story, the characters, the setting — nothing is organic. Product "synergy" is the reason Smashmouth's Top 40 hit became the anthem for a fairy tale ogre, not art.

Which is why writer-director Brad Bird's Ratatouille is so sublimely inspirational. With its underlying message of savoring the unknown, following your passion and striving for excellence, it's difficult to imagine his characters peddling Happy Meals. In fact, this tale of a rat who yearns to be a chef pointedly criticizes the crass exploitation of personality and talent. And this is what Pixar does best: presenting complicated themes and emotions in a children's film. The company trusts its audience to follow along; challenging them to embrace ideas most adult films won't touch with a 10-foot pole.

Bird, in particular, excels at this. His first foray into animated features was the overlooked masterpiece, The Iron Giant, an exciting and affecting tale of a weapon that refuses to accept its reason for being and instead embraces humanity and friendship. The Incredibles, Bird's follow up, used its superhero trappings to examine what it means to be an individual and how that impacts society. What makes these and all of Pixar's films (with the possible exception of Cars) stand out is the belief that story matters as much as the animation.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswald) is a country rat living in France who longs to escape a life of dumpster diving. Inspired by the French Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), he takes to heart the famous cook's rallying cry: "Anyone Can Cook!" and pines for the day he can put his palette and talent for flavor to work, creating culinary masterpieces. Ah, cruel fate, to be a great chef trapped in a rat's body! Luckily, fate reconsiders Remy's plight and separates him from his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Peter Sohn), depositing him on the doorstep of his hero's 3-star (formerly 5-star) bistro.

It turns out, infamous food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), savaged Gusteau's reputation in a review and the chef died of a broken heart. Now, run by his tyrannical and exploitative assistant, Skinner (Ian Holm), the restaurant has become the uninspired flagship for a line of tacky frozen microwave dinners.

Enter garbage-boy Linguini (Lou Romano) who is rescued from unemployment when Remy salvages the soup he's accidentally ruined. A partnership is struck: Using the boy as his marionette, Remy will cook and Linguini will keep his job and, maybe, win the love of no-nonsense female chef, Colette (a shockingly good Janeane Garofalo).

Once again Pixar drops you into a beautifully realized universe that is as familiar as it is fantastical. The breathtaking animation is so good you can be forgiven for taking it for granted as clever plot twists, expert voice work and incisive wit pull you in. Ratatouille's lush Paris locales are remarkably detailed and wholly convincing while its exaggerated characters burst with personality and life. Remy is so convincingly rendered you can see his tiny heart beating beneath his blue-furred chest. Even the computer-animated food looks delicious.

Thankfully, Ratatouille never relies on pop-culture references or crass satire to get laughs. It creates comedy on its own terms. Each character has humor and heart, demonstrating unexpected flaws and emotional depth, surprising us with their insecurities and overreactions. Remy and the gang are certainly more real than anyone in Pirates of the Caribbean or Fantastic Four and you simply forget at times that you're watching computer-animated characters.

Though it probably won't rate for kids as one of Pixar's best (unless you got a budding foodie in your house), Ratatouille features enough ingeniously choreographed chases and slapstick gags to keep kids eyes glued to the screen. But what makes Bird's efforts so special — almost subversively — is how he demonstrates the way passions blossom. When's the last time you saw a film convey to kids that life is to be experienced and that there is pleasure in that experience?

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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