Number of Films: Two.
Modern Masterpieces: One. With my apologies to The Incredibles, which is an incredible film, the masterpiece is Ratatouille.
Total Disasters: Not even close.
Better than you remember: If you think either of these could be better, you should probably just stop reading now.
Awards: Best Animated Film Oscar for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Best Picture nomination for.... oh yeah, nevermind.
Box Office: Both films topped 200 mil. The one without the french name topped 260 mil.
Critical Consensus: Beloved and beloved.
Favorite Actor: John Ratzenberger’s name will likely show up for all the Pixar guys.
Let’s talk about:
Complexity. First off complex relationships. Even more specifically complex family relationships. Now we’re getting somewhere. The difference between Brad Bird films and the other Pixar guys’ films is that the families (or “families”) involved don’t just have to work together to save the day, they have to work together to save themselves. Bird’s films both feature families that are, to one extent or another, broken. So it inevitably follows that the relationships between members of these families would be a frequent topic for the director. But the broken bonds go well beyond the simple you might expect from kiddie fare (which is unfair to say since we know that great animated films aren't just for kids, but in a way it took Pixar to remind us of that this decade) . Sure we want Remy’s father to respect him as an artist, yet he makes good points via the safety of the community. Yes we can empathize with Mr. Incredible’s desire to do superhero work again, but it’s still wrong of him to betray his wife, who herself is thankfully presented as reasonable and not villainous (I’m looking at you American Beauty).
But complexity isn't just limited the relationships. It's everywhere in Bird’s work. Look at his directorial style. Bird throws more camera angles, movements and tricks at his films than his compatriots, all of them purposeful and brilliantly conceived. Bird’s direction isn’t just complexity for its own sake. His camera always empathizes with his characters without drawing any undue attention to itself (Please don’t take this to mean that I consider certain more simplicity-inclined Pixar directors to be inferior. Quite the contrary, I love all of these Pixar movies and find them to be perfect versions of themselves). In fact, Bird’s films require complex direction more than others at work at Pixar Studios. Whereas other films may give us an A, B and possible C storyline, Bird’s just keep piling up the conflict layer upon layer upon layer. So we don’t just get father fish looking for son fish (A story) as son fish tries to get home (B story), we get rat yearns to cook (A) while getting displaced from family (B) while meeting human who needs job (C) and teams up with rat to cook (D) as he develops a romantic relationship with co-worker (E) and may be the rightful heir to a restaurant (F) while rat tries to reconnect with family by potentially sabotaging human (G). All the while a grumpy critic waits and waits for a life-changing dish of ratatouille. Layers. Seriously.
In another sign of his fascination with complexity, Bird has a greater desire to explore the artistic process within his films than the other Pixar directors. The Incredibles puts its entire story on hold several times as we visit costume-design artist extraordinaire Edna Mode who gives us the lowdown on her own genius. And Ratatouille, which is naturally filled with ruminations on the art of cooking, goes even farther, visualizing the concept of taste and combination of taste in a way that no other film has. Bird loves the mind of the artist, and it shows.
So Brad Bird is Mr. Complexity. And where did this come from? A long history in animation. For most of us Bird entered our radar just this decade with The Incredibles. For the lucky few of us, self not included, who weren’t frightened or off put by the thought of a non-Disney animated film, the introduction was by way of The Iron Giant. But even that was in 1999, just on the cusp of this modern decade. Still if you find yourself watching old episodes of The Simpsons or The Critic (I’m not the only one who still watches old episodes of The Critic am I?) You’ll see his name. He's been doing this for a while. The relentlessly talented Brad Bird finally finding a home at the ever-brilliant Pixar is in retrospect both incredibly obvious and one of the finest developments of the decade. As for the next decade, Bird is working on the live-action earthquake film 1906. due out in 2 years. It’s exciting to see Bird spread his wings and take on something new, but waiting until 2012 for it seems like a bit of cruelty worthy of Syndrome himself.