The most beautiful movie Pixar Animation Studios has ever created is also swarming with rats. That's among the marvelous paradoxes of Ratatouille, director Brad Bird's sensational followup to his Oscar-winning The Incredibles. Sumptuously designed but audaciously embracing its potential "ick" factor, this daring and disarming comedy may foster a new respect for the scuttling vermin dreaded by city-dwellers everywhere.

Of course, Remy, Bird's furry hero, is no ordinary rodent--this French country rat literally stands apart from his fellow scavengers by virtue of his acute sense of smell. His taste for the finer foods in life puts him in perilous situations, as he lingers in kitchen areas where no rat should be visible for too long. Remy's recklessness exposes the entire colony to a gun-toting old woman, which forces their retreat to the makeshift crafts they've docked at the river. Caught in a swirling current, Remy takes an unexpected detour through the sewers and winds up in the dream city of any gourmet, Paris. He soon finds himself in the restaurant founded by his idol (as seen on TV), the late Auguste Gusteau, a portly chef who gained notoriety promoting the notion that "anyone can cook."

Before he can escape the bustling kitchen of Gusteau's, Remy sees the new garbage boy, Linguini, spill a vat of soup and attempt to repair the damage by adding ingredients at random. The affront to Remy's sensibilities is too much, and the bold rat takes matters into his own paws and races to rescue the tainted broth, with a dumbfounded Linguini as his only witness. The reconstituted soup is a huge success, and the garbage boy is ordered to reproduce the recipe the following day. Linguini discovers that he and Remy are able to communicate, and the boy and rat develop an eccentric operating system in which Remy hides under Linguini's chef's hat and pulls his hair like a marionette. And thus the greatest culinary team since Smith & Wollensky is born.

Needless to say, there are complications. Gusteau's head chef, the diminutive Skinner, is a hot-tempered autocrat who has sold out his founder's reputation by launching a line of frozen dinners--and who has good reason not to see Linguini succeed. Then there's the looming presence of Anton Ego, the toughest restaurant critic in Paris. And finally, there are all those hungry relatives of Remy's who descend on Gusteau's once word gets out about his inside track on an endless food supply.

With Ratatouille, Brad Bird solidifies his status as one of the finest writer-directors working in animation today, with a sophisticated wit that can be savored by adult audiences and comic timing comparable to the late master Chuck Jones. (Note the impact of a simple cut after Linguini accidentally knocks over Remy's cage into the Seine.) The scenes of Linguini attempting to cook while yanked around by his secret mentor are slapstick ballet in the tradition of the great silent comedians. And there are several breathless and beautifully choreographed action sequences that bode well for Bird's future plans for a live-action debut.

Bird doesn't shy from his queasy premise (developed by original director Jan Pinkava and reconceived by Bird); except for the refined Remy, the rodents in this film generally look and behave enough like real rats to inspire the occasional shudder. And Bird's brilliant script takes an impossible situation--a rat who wants to be a chef--and sees it all the way through to a most satisfying and startling resolution.

Comedian Patton Oswalt (TV's "King of Queens") is endearing as the passionate Remy, and Incredibles production designer Lou Romano lends a deft vocal performance as the hapless Linguini. Ian Holm is maniacally amusing as Skinner, and Janeane Garofalo pulls off a convincing French accent (though occasionally hard to understand) as Linguini's love interest, headstrong fellow chef Collette. Brad Garrett is fun as the spirit of Gusteau urging Remy on, and Brian Dennehy brings his formidable presence to the role of Remy's roughhewn dad. Best of all is the great Peter O'Toole in an exceptionally droll and robust performance as the curmudgeonly critic Ego.

Bird and his team have created an animated Paris to die for, a riot of lush, evocative 3D detail that almost demands repeat viewings. The Pixar artists have also clearly studied the "foodie" culture, offering a vivid and detailed depiction of the workings of an upscale restaurant kitchen and transforming CGI bytes into enticing bites of haute cuisine.

An irresistible feast of comedy, imagination, intelligence and heart, Ratatouille will have audiences clamoring for seconds.