Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Does it tell us something about civilisation that rats have overtaken mice as the world’s favourite animated rodent? What ever would Walt Disney have said? A millennium or two after the first outbreak of bubonic plague, its founding carriers are in a Hollywood bidding war. A mere tail-twitch after DreamWorks’ Flushed Away, here comes Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille, the story of a four-pawed French garbage-eater who becomes a top Paris chef.

The cultural signals are myriad and confusing. I suspect the 21st century, ravaged by terrors man-made and natural, now likes its subhuman adorables to be a little tougher. More specifically, Ratatouille may represent a late detente between America and France, in which cheese-eating surrender monkeys have changed species if not taste preference. (Actually – just a quibble – rats surely aren’t cheese-obsessed, as portrayed here? That is mice, isn’t it?)

Whatever the subtext or zoological niceties, the movie is a riot of invention. It pushes digital animation to new heights where the air is rare and the oxygen of logic and plausibility blithely abandoned. It couldn’t happen – but for creature-feature purposes it does – that a provincial rat called Rémy (voiced by young comedian Patton Oswalt) swims to Paris by canal and sewer, dances around a top restaurant kitchen improving the soup he had thought of scavenging (but which goes out to wow the diners), then befriends young dishwasher Linguini (Lou Romano), hiding inside this aspiring master-chef’s hat and pulling his hair like reins to guide his ingredient choices.

The first jawdropper is the quality of the film’s images. Every spike of rat fur is vivid and gleaming; every crust of French bread is good enough to eat; every oozing, opalescent onion can be smelled and wept over. The second jawdropper is the agility of the camera (or computer eye) as our gravity-free viewpoint whizzes up, down and around streets, cityscapes, landscapes, eateries.

The third jawdropper, by which time we need help to recover our mandibles from the floor, is the sophisticated panache of the supporting characters. These are led by the restaurant’s jealous chef (voice of Ian Holm), a ball of venom with batrachian features and barking accent, and its most feared critic, one Anton Ego, a fastidious fault-finder with sepulchral features, ventriloquised by Peter O’Toole. For the first character you should imagine Edward G. Robinson gone Gallic; for the second, Will Self gone semi-posthumous.

A Michelin mirth inspector might withhold the ultimate rosette. The film could be a tiny bit funnier. It suffered a change of director during production, Jan Pinkava, who conceived the story, making way for the tried and tested digimation master Brad Bird (The Incredibles). Perhaps Ratatouille needed a third creative force, a sous-chef in charge of gags. But only Anton Ego would carp. For two hours it purveys huge charm, enough to make you fall in love with the rat species and enough, with its array of drool-generating screen dishes, to make America forgive France, re-dub freedom fries as French fries, and fall sobbing on the country’s cordon bleu shoulders.

There is nothing sadder and madder than a film that moves at high speed with no idea where it is going. Like a blinkered nag without a jockey, it gallops on until it hits a hedge. The Nanny Diaries is scripted and directed by ex-documentarists Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who wittily filtered fantasy into fact in American Splendor. There Paul Giamatti played the comic-strip creator and celebrity miserablist Harvey Pekar. Here he changes sides to play a smug plutocrat from New York’s Upper East Side who hires Scarlett Johansson’s nanny to look after the spoiled wife he quarrels with (Laura Linney) and their young son. The film’s bestselling source novel also came from a documentary background. The authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus wrote it by comparing and combining their separate stints of experience babysitting for the Manhattan rich.

The result is a class comedy overeager to proclaim its own class. Berman/Pulcini splash out on top players; they favour a richly coloured, lacquered look; they keep holding on tableaux of frozen emoting, plush and portentous, that we associate more with Hollywood in the 1950s. (Imagine All About Eve in collision with Magnificent Obsession.)

But satire and emotional drama do not mix. When we giggle at the selfish enormities of this family’s lifestyle, we cannot be expected to weep for Johansson’s lonely hearted childminder. When our hearts are warming to the romantic relief Johansson finds with a “Harvard hottie” (Chris Evans), we cannot suddenly cartwheel into hilarity again at the bickering of Mr and Mrs X (as they are named and known throughout). From the chaos of styles only Linney emerges with character and credibility. This actress deserves better; but she so often does.

Stranger than fiction? Stefan Ruzowitsksy’s The Counterfeiters, from Germany, recounts the Nazi plot, late in the second world war, to bankrupt Britain and the US by flooding the money markets with forged pounds and dollars. In Sachsenhausen concentration camp a Jewish ex-gambler and counterfeiter (played with seedy magnetism by Karl Markovics) leads a team of fellow prisoners working the top-secret mint provided by the Reich, in exchange for special privileges, from soft beds to clean toilets to extra food.

If Schindler’s List was the optimists’ film about grace confronting wartime despair, with redemption meted out to the deserving and tears bringing last-reel catharsis, The Counterfeiters is strictly for pessimists. No one deserves anything, but since they are human we identify with them anyway. Ruzowitsky’s film, austerely shot and scripted with terse wit, grants itself a licence to make art – and to explore the moral and pragmatic dilemmas of the prisoners, who ponder acts of sabotage to wreck the scheme or play for time till liberation – in exchange for entertaining us with a gripping story.

Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, from New Zealand, has no doubt about the style of movie it is attempting to make: trash gothic. It duly makes it. A deadly chemical escapes from a South Island animal lab and turns sheep sociopathic. Never mind the silence of the lambs. Listen out for the bloodthirsty baa-ing of the man-eating ovines. The special effects are of the kind you could do at home with a bottle of ketchup and leg of mutton. The scream-ridden soundtrack is often drowned out by audience laughter. It is all good, camp fun. If there were still a late-night movie circuit on the planet, this would be up there with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Mr Brooks, on which no sensible bet-layer in the movie world would ever have placed a shirt, would be in the dirty laundry basket in the basement. Kevin Costner as a schizophrenic serial killer? Demi Moore as a hardboiled police detective? No, we don’t think so. Perhaps, cast the other way round, it might work; or perhaps done with rats, gags and digimation by the failure-proof Pixar.

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