Two Titles from Pixar
Ratatouille (June 27/07)
Despite the inclusion of some seriously impressive visuals, Ratatouille is ultimately one of the most uneven and least compelling efforts from Disney's Pixar Animation Studios to date - something that's due primarily to filmmaker Brad Bird's egregious emphasis on slapsticky, overtly silly bits of comedy. There's simply no shaking the feeling that the movie's been geared primarily towards children, and while it's not a stretch to imagine younger viewers enjoying the heck out of the various characters' wacky misadventures, adults will undoubtedly spend much of Ratatouille's running time searching for something of substance to latch onto. It's a shame, really, as the movie is initially just as spellbinding as anything within the Pixar canon. There's little doubt that the first-act hijinks of Remy (Patton Oswalt), the Parisian rat with an unusual passion for food, sets the bar at a level that the rest of the film can't quite touch, particularly as the focus shifts to a klutzy would-be chef named Linguini (Lou Romano). The bond that forms between the two characters is cute enough - with Remy agreeing to help out Linguini in the kitchen - but Linguini's unreasonably oafish and over-the-top persona makes it increasingly difficult to sympathize with his predicament (he must keep the rat's presence a secret from Ian Holm's villainous Skinner). That many of the supporting characters are French isn't a problem in and of itself, although there's certainly no denying that key bits of dialogue are often smothered by their impossibly thick accents (this is particularly troublesome whenever Skinner and Janeane Garofalo's Colette open their mouths). The voice performances are otherwise quite superb, with Oswalt, Dennehy, and particularly Peter O'Toole (as snobby food critic Anton Ego) transforming their respective characters into engaging, surprisingly three-dimensional figures. Ratatouille is pleasant and diverting enough to warrant a mild recommendation, but it's virtually impossible not to feel a twinge of disappointment at its continued emphasis on juvenile hijinks - while the inclusion of several heavy-handed moral messages near the film's conclusion certainly doesn't do it any favors.
Along with the three Toy Story films, Up represents the pinnacle of Pixar's cinematic achievements - as the movie is as entertaining, engrossing, and moving as anything within the animated realm. The film follows 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) as he attempts to fulfill his lifelong dream of traveling to South America, though he does this by arming his rickety old house with thousands of helium balloons. The journey immediately stumbles as Carl discovers that he's taken on a stowaway in the form of an eager young Wilderness Scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai), with their eventual arrival in South America bringing them face-to-face with both friends (Dug, an adorable talking dog) and foes (Charles Muntz, a fearsome explorer). It's an off-the-wall premise that's utilized to consistently enthralling effect by filmmakers Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, with the fully-realized nature of the central character certainly playing a substantial role in the movie's palpable success. Docter and Peterson, working from their own screenplay, kick the proceedings off with an absolutely stunning stretch devoted entirely to Carl's backstory, and it almost feels as though the film has painted itself into a corner with this emotionally devastating portrait of Carl's marriage to his childhood sweetheart (ie how can the movie possibly top its opening 20 minutes?) The chemistry between Carl and Russell certainly plays a pivotal role in Up's subsequent success, with the pair's various misadventures in South America heightened by the frequently breathtaking visuals and ongoing emphasis on colorful supporting characters (with Dug undoubtedly stealing every single one of his scenes). By the time the action-heavy yet thoroughly stirring (and even a little moving) climax rolls around, Up has firmly cemented its place as an animated masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned alongside the genre's best and most respected offerings.