In all likelihood, the Best Animated Feature Oscar should be renamed the Disney-Pixar Excellence in Animation Award. No other animation production house has, with any regularity, managed to equal or top Pixar’s dizzying heights of brilliance, nor have they met Pixar’s ambitious standards. There are pretenders and contenders, but Pixar continues to set the bar by which all other animated features are judged. Due to this, 2007’s Ratatouille was burdened with high expectations. Added to the pressure was the fact that 2006’s Cars was Pixar’s first bad movie. Thankfully, it would appear that Cars was just a one-off anomaly, because Ratatouille is just as funny, joyful and heartfelt as anything Pixar has ever produced. Comparing Pixar’s Ratatouille or Toy Story with the likes of, say, Kung Fu Panda or Shark Tale is like comparing fine wine with light beer – both have their surface pleasures, but the former bestows many additional delights.

Remy (Oswalt) is a rat with a highly developed sense of taste and smell who dreams of becoming a chef. He idolises now-deceased French chef Gusteau who preached a motto which Remy took to heart: “Anyone can cook“. Through a curious set of circumstances, Remy becomes separated from his clan. However, Remy is delighted to discover that he is in the heart of Paris directly across the street from Gusteau’s once-renowned restaurant. Helpless to resist exploring the kitchen, Remy ends up putting his own unique spin on a soup which fast becomes popular with the restaurant’s clientele. Credit for the soup goes to a dishwasher named Linguini (Romano) who is the only one to notice Remy’s talent. With pressure mounting for Linguini to replicate his soup and create more dishes, Linguini and Remy strike a compromise: Remy will use Linguini as his puppet during cooking, and nobody will know that a rodent is responsible for such fine food.

Naturally, it’s easy to be disgusted by the notion of a rodent being a chef who handles food that humans will eat. However, writer-director Brad Bird chose to exploit the shaky convergence of the rodent and human worlds in order to revive one of the oldest, most reliable narrative staples in family-movie history: the misunderstood outcast who flourishes when he finds his unique niche. Additionally, Ratatouille could be perceived as a parable about racism and tolerance. The conflict is between humans and rats, and the breakthrough arrives when members of each species learn about members of the other.Ratatouille is endowed with sweet moral values – messages about love, friendship, family and understanding. The final twenty minutes of the film are particularly triumphant, with a climax that’s moving and meaningful. A food critic (O’Toole) emerges as the film’s ostensible villain, but Bird’s handling of the role is unpredictable and genuinely surprising, as well as indicative of the film’s humanity.

Prior to Ratatouille, Brad Bird helmed Pixar’s 2004 hit The Incredibles along with The Iron Giant and episodes of The Simpsons. Fortunately, Bird’s deft touch is evident throughout Ratatouille. Bird – who also wrote the script – did not give into easy gags or forced humour, but rather opted to develop the story with a light touch and let the comedy emerge organically. While Bird allowed for a few frantic chase sequences, they were pulled off with such finesse that they register as necessities rather than distractions. There are no song-and-dance numbers in the movie to enrapture the kids, but there’s plenty of comedy that’s universal enough to tickle the funny bone of viewers of all ages (not to mention there are the aforementioned chase sequences, too). However,Ratatouille is admittedly long for an animated feature, with a runtime of roughly 110 minutes. It’s not as sluggish or weighty as Cars, but there are a few slow patches.

Among the first thing a viewer will notice about Ratatouille – or any Pixar movie, for that matter – is the computer animation. It seems as though the animation keeps getting better with every picture that Pixar produces. Ratatouille offers borderline photorealistic backgrounds, in addition to thoroughly detailed character depictions, though the characters are still recognisably cartoonish. Since this is a Disney movie, the animators emphasised the “cute” aspects of the rats (the round pink nose and the wide, innocent eyes), but there can be no mistaking what they are. All the food looks real enough to eat, as well. Ratatouille is simply a marvel to observe.

The voice talent present in the movie combines tried-and-true names from Pixar’s stable (like John Ratzenberger) with such actors as Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Peter O’Toole and Janeane Garofalo. Patton Oswalt is especially outstanding as Remy – he’s passionate and unafraid, and his line delivery is so matter-of-fact that his outlandish statements seem to make sense. Lou Romano (previously seen in Cars voicing Snotrod) is also perfect as the perpetually awkward Linguini. Brad Garrett (armed with a French accent) is equally remarkable as the legendary Gusteau, while O’Toole is memorable as the egotistical food critic. Like all of Pixar’s movies, the stars were chosen not on the basis of how they sell, but on the basis of whether they suit the role they’ve been allocated.

Clocking in at almost two hours in length, Ratatouille demands a longer attention span than most animated movies. In many ways, it’s probably too sophisticated for younger children as well. Yet, the movie rewards those with patience; offering a number of impressive set-pieces, big laughs and plenty of heart. Ratatouille has that old-world movie magic – it’s the type of movie that you watch as if you were a child again, but with the appreciation of an adult.