What I'm about to say will be a whole lot more meaningful if you know me well: after thinking about it for a few days, I think - think, mind you - that Ratatouille might just be my new favorite Pixar film.

That's a fairly enormous statement to make, but rather than getting into a whole thing about whether or not it is sensible to try and rank the eight Pixar features - of course it isn't, for almost all of them are basically immaculate - I'd rather think seriously about the inherent absurdity of "favorite" claims. Pretty much by definition, there's no real way to defend or discuss that sort of judgment, because the concept of favoritism necessarily implies a personal process. You can think something is "the best," but you feel that something is your "favorite."

Pixar's great triumph has always been to turn the uniquely internal and possessive idea of favorites into a shared experience; considering how monetarily successful they tend to be, the films all feel personal and even intimate. Or put it this way: our response to Spider-Man or Pirates of the Caribbean is in no small part due to the fact that we recognize that everybody else in the world is experiencing the same film we are. They are events - whether you personally enjoy them or not, you see them to be part of the vast organism of moviegoing. Nobody feels that way about e.g. Finding Nemo. Sure, it was the second-highest grossing film of 2003, but who thinks that way about it? It's much too emotionally pure of an experience to be the second-highest grossing anything.

Yet, while Pixar maintains an intimacy of content that most films of similar scale have largely ignored, it is still the case that they've gotten caught in an internal race to be bigger and better. Their first film, Toy Story, was bound mostly to a child's bedroom; their second, A Bug's Life, seems vast, but except for three or four scenes it takes place entirely in the ecosystem of a single tree. But as they moved on they became more sprawling, epic, if you will, culminating in the jet-setting, time-hopping The Incredibles, and vistas as broad as the whole West in an exploration of the alt-society of Cars.

This is hardly a terrible thing - the filmmakers at Pixar are extraordinarily good at what they do - but in a world where every new movie is more bloated than the last, it's rare and extraordinary to see a deliberate scaling-back, and that is what we find in Ratatouille, a film with a grand total of four locations, that for some 75% of its running time takes place in the back office and kitchen of a restaurant. Its main character is a rat; a cute rat, with Patton Oswalt's voice, but a recognizably ratty rat nonetheless. For the first time in Pixar's feature history, there is no sense here that we are being given access to an entire culture of unknown and mysterious depth, and this is a change that suits the studio very well.

After all, Pixar has always been a studio given to personal projects, and one could argue - as indeed, I'm about to - that no-one has made better use of that freedom than Brad Bird. Working on his third feature after the critically lauded smash hit The Incredibles and the critically lauded money pit The Iron Giant (a strong contender for the title of "most underrated animated film of all time," if you ever get in mind to make that list), Bird has established himself, comfortably, as the most distinctive, greatest director of animation currently working in America, and while we're at it, let's just go ahead and call him one of the great American directors, period. It's not such an easy thing to identify any throughline that connects his three stories, other than that they are all extremely sweet without being saccharine.

Ratatouille is not quite as intimate as The Iron Giant, nor is it as playful as The Incredibles, but it hits the best possibly combination of those two impulses: it is simultaneously 2007's best adventure movie and its most moving coming-of-age story. Credit to the director, with his apparently effortless transitioning between the fast-paced and the languid, the funny and the dramatic; credit to the animators, in tip-top form (if nothing here quite matches the gorgeous "neon town" scene from Cars, it's otherwise the best work Pixar has ever done, with attention to detail that makes the hairs on your neck stand up); credit to the exemplary voice cast, including Brian Dennehy, Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo and Peter O'Toole, mostly unrecognizable and cast because of their acting talent, not their marquee value; credit to the extraordinary composer Michael Giacchino, whose score is practically an additional character, and who somehow figured out a way to musically dramatise the taste of food. Even if I wanted to explain how that works, I couldn't.

So after all that, am I going to tell you why I believe all these things? No, I am not. I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. Ratatouille is just one of those movies. Emily Dickinson once said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," and I think that can be applied to all art; and without hesitation, I can say that Ratatouille took the top of my head off. It's easily the best film of the year thus far.