Kids' movies have found a new market with adults by slipping innuendo and pop culture jokes into G-rated fare, but the phrase "family movie" is still pretty much code for "if you're over the age of 12, brace yourself for boredom while your kids laugh at the parts where the talking dog bonks into things."
And maybe that's OK. Most grown-up movies aren't that great, either. Trying to make a movie that's as entertaining to a 25- or 50-year-old as it is to a 5-year-old must be crazy hard. If a movie aimed at kids keeps the kids happy, it's at least done that much right.
What about that don't Pixar and writer-director Brad Bird understand? Instead of using the G rating as a license to suck, how come they keep making these great movies?
In "Ratatouille," Patton Oswalt voices a rat with tastebuds too sensitive to be satisfied with eating literal garbage. His friends and family have no complaints about chowing down on rotten apples and rock-hard bread, but Oswalt's inspired by famous chef Auguste Gusteau, whose motto is "anyone can cook."
After being forcibly evicted from his house by the woman who owns it, Oswalt takes a one-way sewer ride to the late Gusteau's restaurant, where he can't help but fix the soup a bumbling young man (Lou Romano) has just ruined. When Romano's given the choice of a) making that delicious soup again or b) getting fired, he has to find a way to combine his ability to be in the kitchen without being bludgeoned to death with the rat's talent for cooking things that don't taste like poison.
Evidently Pixar's found a way to deal with the fact CGI's always been terrible at making hair, water, and gravity look in any way real, because "Ratatouille" has lots of all three, and it's gorgeous. When cartoon characters look this alive, the scenes from Oswalt's three-inch-high perspective as he flees for his life are all the more thrilling; the ones where he's guiding Romano around like a red-haired marionette are all the funnier.
And it is pretty funny, by the way. Either that or there's something wrong with me, because I was laughing more than most of the little kids in the theater.
About the worst that can be said about "Ratatouille" is it's got a predictable arc: boy and/or rat start from humble beginnings, earn fame and success, then let their egos get in the way until they remember what's important. (The kind of story arc that, if it were rated PG-13, would include a woozy descent into booze and drugs, with the option for a tearful conversion to monogamy and Christianity. Roll credits!)
When a story's told this well, though, it doesn't matter how old it is. Brad Bird has fleshed out his story with memorable characters and actors that know it's possible to be funny and French without resorting to outrageous accents and eye-rolling jokes about body odor. It probably helps to have cast some of the old guard (Ian Holm, Pete O'Toole) alongside the newer talent (Will Arnett, Janeane Garofalo.)
All that and the movie's kinetic, grin-inducing climax would be more than enough, but by "Ratatouille's" happy-but-not-saccharine end, it's also become a piercing take on the role of criticism and the redemptive power of art. I don't know how Brad Bird reaches such adult insight in the midst of a movie meant for children, I just know we're lucky to have him here.