Journey to the Center of the Broth 

A rat among humans aspires to culinary greatness in "Ratatouille."

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In "The Incredibles" (2004), writer and director Brad Bird teamed with Disney's Pixar Animation Studios to produce an entertaining and surprisingly tart brief against the reign of mediocrity in contemporary culture. With "Ratatouille," this collaboration has produced another immaculately animated, thoroughly fun fable about the trials of the gifted.

This time, however, the focus is not on a family of superheroes incognito, but on a young rat, and the gift in question is not supernatural might, but culinary artistry. Although the topic may seem a little effete for a children's movie in these raucous times, "Ratatouille" is never less than engaging. And when it delves into the isolating commitments of the artist and even — gasp! — the critic, it's positively moving.

At the center of things is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a budding rodent gourmet whose hankering for fresh herbs and mushrooms bewilders his teeming pack. His imposing father, Django (Brian Dennehy), the leader of the colony and a utilitarian to the core, puts Remy's palate in harness by reducing him to the position of poison-sniffer.

Here Remy might have languished in obscurity, his gift unexplored. But, in a thrilling sequence, a nautical misadventure sunders him from his fellows, at one stroke freeing him from his family and landing him in Paris, at the very door of Gusteau's, the restaurant of the recently deceased celebrity chef who inspired him (Brad Garrett), and whose spirit offers words of encouragement.

Once inside, Remy finds he can exercise his craft with the connivance of a front, Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), an incompetent, gangly youth who hopelessly aspires to be a chef. Hiding under Alfredo's toque, Remy turns Alfredo into his marionette, but must contend with the villainous Skinner (Ian Holm), who has turned Gusteau's into a tourist trap. Indifferent to haute cuisine, Skinner concentrates on a line of frozen junk food peddled under his late patron's name.

As one might expect, there are a handful of fairytale elements in "Ratatouille," including a mystery surrounding one character's birth and an attempt to deny a rightful heir his inheritance. And, like a fairy tale, the movie is entrenched in a world of sometimes harsh absolutes, not all of them in keeping with the temper of the times. Some people have talent, some don't. When Alfredo can't bring himself to acknowledge the truth behind the cooking that has restored Gusteau's to respectability, it's a moral failing, and a serious one. And when Remy's brother Emile (Peter Sohn) shows up, expecting to share in Remy's good fortune by raiding the restaurant's larder, we find that Bird is not inclined to wink at theft, even when the have-nots steal from the haves. Here is that unusual thing, a children's movie that seeks to inculcate a respect for private property.

It's when Remy's family returns to the action, in fact, that things take a turn toward the serious, even the momentous. Django is inclined to see Remy's integration into the human world as a form of treason. In a harrowing scene, he shows his son an exterminator's shop adorned with rows of dead rats suspended from the jaws of iron traps, looking like victims of the gibbet. Preaching the language of victimization, he enjoins Remy to a life of theft and cunning. To court success among human beings is to betray his roots. This is serious business, and Remy's final thinking through of the problem is serious, too, and satisfying.

But perhaps the biggest surprise comes from the restaurant critic Anton Ego, whose mordant words are brought to brilliant life by Peter O'Toole. With his gaunt, wedgelike head and spidery physique, Ego looks like a refugee from a Tim Burton movie. But he is also given the most remarkable speech in the film, justifying critics' questionable endeavors with an eloquence that seems like something out of "All About Eve." It's Ego who points the film's tempered, worldly moral by revising Chef Gusteau's winning motto, "Anyone can cook." Ego qualifies: "Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

There are moments here and there when the inventiveness of the film flags a bit, as it does when a perfunctory romance blooms between Alfredo and Colette (Janeane Garofalo), the one woman cook at Gusteau's. Such brief lapses aside, though, "Ratatouille" has the look and the feel of a classic. (G) 110 min.

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