When it comes to big-screen cartoons, it all started with a mouse. Which makes Remy, "Ratatouille's" resident rodent, the logical successor to legendary cartoon mice from Mickey to "An American Tail's" hero, Fievel.
Of course, Remy's a rat, not a mouse.
But he's every bit as charismatic as his cinematic predecessors -- and that, in turn, helps make "Ratatouille" the summer's tastiest animated treat. Literally and figuratively.
The latest from the wizards at Pixar (those wonderful folks who brought you such instant classics as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo"), "Ratatouille" focuses on the ultimate fish out of water: a rat in a kitchen.
Not just any rat, mind you, but a gourmet chef longing to hold court in what may be the most rodent-averse location on earth, a five-star French restaurant.
The latest from "Incredibles" director Brad Bird, "Ratatouille" once again explores issues of friends, family and identity in an audacious new context.
And while it's not quite as kiddie-friendly as such past Pixar favorites as "Monsters Inc.," there's plenty of fun in store for kids of all ages -- especially those old enough to have kids of their own.
From its opening frames, "Ratatouille" introduces Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) as a misfit, an outsider in the rat pack led by his old-school father Django (voiced by a gruff but loving Brian Dennehy).
They're content to scamper about, searching for sustenance, making do with whatever they can scrounge.
Remy, by contrast, is a born connoisseur, determined to refine his palate by eating only the choicest morsels and -- inspired by his hero, Chef Auguste Gusteau -- cooking them. After all, as Gusteau (voiced with irresistible joie de vivre by Brad Garrett) suggests in the title of his best-selling cookbook, "Anyone Can Cook."
Then again, Gusteau's not the culinary star he used to be. For one thing, his eponymous Paris restaurant has lost its luster, thanks to such snippy critics as Anton Ego (the delightfully imperious Peter O'Toole), who not only spits out his words but any food he doesn't like. (Ego's motto: "If I don't love it, I don't swallow!")
Gusteau has an even bigger problem, however: He's dead. Not that it stops him from advising Remy -- strictly as a figment of Remy's imagination, bien sur.
Meanwhile, back at Gusteau's former gastronomic home, diminutive chef Skinner (a blustery Ian Holm) struts and rages like a culinary Napoleon.
That is, until a new garbage boy, the hapless Linguini (voiced by Pixar production designer Lou Romano) arrives in the kitchen, providing Remy with a perfect front for his culinary expertise.
The elaborate cooking system they develop -- Remy hiding underneath Linguini's towering chef's hat, guiding his movements by tugging on puffs of his unruly red hair, manipulating him the way a puppeteer manipulates a marionette -- sparks some of "Ratatouille's" most inventive slapstick, recalling the glorious, uproarious moves of such silent clowns as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Beyond its rambunctious physical comedy, however, "Ratatouille" also makes room for myriad plot complications, from Remy's black sheep (black rat?) status with his relatives to Linguini's egomaniacal reaction to becoming Paris' hottest chef. To say nothing of Skinner's schemes, which extend from permanent control of Gusteau's to a frozen-food empire including such decidedly downmarket items as Tooth-Pickin' fried chicken and saucy burritos. (Quelle horreur!)
Throughout, Bird's visual instincts set the tone, providing a beguiling rodent's-eye view of Paris, from familiar landmarks to subterranean corners.
And while the screenplay (by Bird, based on a story by Bird, co-director Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco) can't quite live up to "Ratatouille's" gleaming look, many of the movie's veteran voices provide an extra soupçon of seasoning to spice up their dialogue.
Janeane Garofalo, for example, masks a gooey center with crusty determination as the kitchen's lone female chef. And the punctilious O'Toole oozes condescension and authority with every precisely formed vowel.
If only Oswalt and Romano, the voices behind Remy and Linguini, had some of that oomph, "Ratatouille's" central characters might be as memorable vocally as they are visually.
But that's a minor quibble in the midst of a major feast. So dig in -- and bon appetit!
Carol Cling narrates "Ratatouille" footage at www.reviewjournal.com/media/video/review_ratatouille.html