LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When the producers of "Ratatouille" started making their movie, they wondered who in their right mind would pay to see an animated tale about a rat cooking in a high-class French restaurant.
"We are still wondering," said producer Brad Lewis, despite the fact that the Disney/Pixar film has grossed $620 million at worldwide box offices and is widely expected to win Sunday's Oscar for 2007's best animated film.
Academy Award pundit Tom O'Neil calls the movie, "the big cheese in the contest. It has the highest critics' ranking of any film this year -- 93 percent of critics liked it and it should have been nominated for best picture."
Only one animated film has been nominated for best film, 1991's "Beauty and the Beast," and it lost.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a separate category for the world's top film honors to single out full-length cartoon movies starting with nominees for 2001.
While "Ratatouille" is the front-runner for this year's Oscar, it has stiff competition from "Persepolis," a French film about a schoolgirl's rebellion against the repression of women in Islamic Iran, and "Surf's Up" about surfing penguins.
All three have won critical respect and praise from fellow animators. French officials liked "Persepolis" so much they made it the country's candidate for best foreign language film, but it failed to be nominated in that category and wound up as a rare foreign language entry in animation.
"Ratatouille" producer Lewis credited the success of the film to director Brad Bird, the Oscar-winning animator for "The Incredibles," who was implored by Disney/Pixar to take over a project that was spinning out of control.
Lewis said that when Bird stepped in, "It wasn't that the film was going nowhere, but that it was going everywhere at once. Brad came in and gave it focus."
"Ratatouille" is the latest in a long line of Disney/Pixar animated hits that includes two "Toy Story" movies, "Finding Nemo" and "Cars." Many critics believe this newest movie is the best so far.
Maxim film critic Pete Hammond said Bird has a great talent for humanizing his subjects, especially in the case of the hero in "Ratatouille," a rat named Remy who has a knack for preparing fine cuisine and a dream of being a great chef.
"There is something relatable about someone following a dream when he doesn't have a chance, an outsider who knows he is talented and is just looking for a way in," Hammond said.
"Even in our presidential race, where either a woman or an African American is about to win a major party nomination -- just like a rat running a French restaurant -- who would ever have thought that would happen?" Hammond added.
Despite his four legs, furry body and long tail, Remy is about as human as a rat can be, and he befriends another dreamer -- this one human -- the garbage boy in the restaurant of a once famous chef, Auguste Gusteau.
Together, the pair of unlikely kitchen mates create the best restaurant in Paris. While their journey is not without its perils, eventually the two learn lessons about friendship.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte