Friday, November 20, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Brad Bird

Robert here. My initial thought for my series on the directors who shaped the past decade was to combine the Pixar guys into one big entry. Five minutes later I was filled with great shame. How dare I think that just because these men make animated films, they don’t deserve their own entries. It was ghettoization all over again! Sure, Pixar films all tend to have similar themes but that doesn’t mean that the great Pixar directors are interchangeable. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at them and see what makes them the same and different. First up: Brad Bird.

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).

Peter O'Toole provides the voice, Brad Bird provides the perspective

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.

Brad Bird, Mr. Complexity. First on Left.

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.


Hardy said...

I think The Incredibles is the masterpiece of Brad Bird. Infinitely enjoyable.

Casey said...

Love Pixar, I think hes my favorite of the directors, though walle is porbly my favorite

Anonymous said...

Wow. There's so many things wrong with this post but then again... I shouldn't have kept reading.

jessica said...

Surprise, a uselessly obnoxious comment from someone named Anonymous.

Timothy Griffiths said...

I was just curious, do you think that Carolyn Burnham was really portrayed as villainous in American Beauty? I'd say uptight, yes, but I developed a great deal of understanding for her and her situation. She wasn't villainous, just sad in a lot of ways. The scene at the end where she falls into the closet full of shirts (pre-Brokeback, mind you) is kind of heartbreaking, even at the same time that it's hysterical nature is almost comedic. I don't usually lend a lot of understanding to adulterous characters, but Lester Burnham is hardly a character that I just went along for the ride with. Just because he narrated and drove the plot doesn't mean he's likeable and perfect. I think he's self-obsessed and vain (as is pretty much everyone in that movie (which is not as good as everyone remembers.)).

Glenn said...

I seriously can't seperate The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Both are masterpieces for completely different reasons, although I feel a strong connection to Ratatouille since so few people rank it as highly as I.

Anonymous said...

OT: Just looking at the picture of Frances Mcdormand in the sidebar makes me wish she had played Karen Carpenter at some point in the 80's..


Robert another inspired choice... but if you cover every Pixar director won't that eat up all the time remaining for the live action guys (and girls!)

and though i love Ratatouille I don't see much qualitative difference that would place it above The Incredibles?

Timothy ???? did you mean to post this elsewhere. There's a lot ot talk about Coarolyn Burhman in that Best Pictures episode that deals with american beauty here it is.

Colin Low said...

Sheesh, why not just list both as modern masterpieces? ... I don't consider Ratatouille a masterpiece, though. For all its talk about valuing talent, it allows all of Gusteau's cooks to leave on a sad note without catching up on them later, and it subordinates Collette's cooking ambitions to Remy's by spotlighting his self-actualisation and neglecting hers. (Finding romance is enough for girls, apparently.)

Robert said...

Nathaniel... Timothy was reacting to my brief call-out to American Beauty.

Neel Mehta said...

Until Up (probably -- I still haven't seen it), Brad Bird was the only Pixar director that had successfully animated the human race, specifically adults. And he did it twice.

The rest of the Pixar roster has so many strengths, but depicting adult humans is not one of them. WALL-E is a prime example: you get Fred Willard and overgrown babies, while the humanity comes from the robots.


OOPS my apologies.

and i'm always frustrated that people don't read more carefully.

Ryan T. said...

Love that picture of Brad Bird's disembodied head with Peter O'Toole.

Michael Andrews Bashan said...

I hope each one of you who is discussing the masterpiece stature of Ratatouille and The Incredibles has taken the opportunity to watch The Iron Giant. Man. . . I love that movie so much.