Bird is stubbornly stuck on a few flourishes. Two of the action sequences are way over the top. One human pulls out a gun and chases retreating rats with dogged persistence. A separate chase sequence goes from a motorcycle to a boat for no real reason. (Brad Bird can certainly direct action, but he really needs to rein himself in.)
Several scenes of overcooked slapstick strain credulity, as human beings underreact to behaviour that would get people thrown into mental institutions. For Brad Bird, quizzical looks are enough to sell the joke, but he needs to either tone down the convulsions or make the other characters respond more believably.
On the dialogue side, sitcommy interplay drags down the first act ("Lightningy" is a terrible throwaway line that somehow made it into the commercials). "Bad Improv" rears its head in a couple of scenes, and characters stumble over themselves. Apparently, Bird thinks the verbal slapstick in the prayer scene from Iron Giant is funny, but such sloppiness inappropriately drains tension from two key scenes.
Such nuances will not bother Brad Bird lovers, who will certainly groove on the director's ability to stage conversations with believable performances and nuanced relationship development. His yen for physical comedy keeps the pace buoyant. Iron Giant and The Incredibles weren't afraid of a few rough edges in the narratives, so don't be shocked by the presence of pepper spray, threatening knives, and the aforementioned shotguns.
Of course, Bird slips some social critique into his story, and both ends of the political spectrum will get some juicy talking points. The restaurant's good name is being sold to the highest bidder by its current manager, Chef Skinner. (Surely Michael Eisner's critics will see pointed critique there.) The health department would surely close a restaurant with rodent culinary prodigies in the kitchen, so the threat of an overbearing bureaucracy once again threatens a well-meaning Brad Bird protagonist. For the postmodernists in the room, there is food critic Anton Ego (voiced regally by Peter O'Toole). His honest brutality singlehandedly dropped a star from the restaurant's five-star rating, leading to Gusteau's death—and the customary loss of another star. Ego even has the review in his file cabinet to prove it! Yet, Bird offers this sinisterly serious man a measure of respect. (As well he should; The Incredibles showed up on more Best of the Year Lists than much of 2004's live-action Oscar bait.) M. Night Shyamalan should be on notice, and he should get a load of the review Ego narrates in the film's final act. Its wisdom should be observed by anyone who thinks great art can't come from animators.
Ratatouille is the work of a great artist on the rise, more disciplined than before but still innovative. I can't wait to see the work that places Brad Bird alongside Miyazaki and Lasseter as one of our greatest living animators. He is one film away from a masterpiece.