Brad Bird is back with the family of superheroes he first brought to the big screen in 2004, writes Esther McCarthy.
BRAD BIRD can remember first drawing a character in sequential pictures at the age of three — a little rabbit named Boinky.
By 13, the Pixar creative giant who’s brought us such animated classics as The Incredibles and Ratatouille was making his first animated short, a version of The Tortoise and the Hare that already showed his wit and ability to subvert the expectations of the audience — the tortoise, he says, was the villain. “The tortoise was kind of the bad guy who wanted to stop the hare,” he smiles at the memory.
“The film ended up in a five-way tie because other animals joined the race. It was just like where the regular story zigs, I’m going to zag. It was really more like a Chuck Jones (the creator of Bugs Bunny) cartoon than it was Disney. It’s a 13-year-old’s version of what a Chuck Jones is. But Disney saw something in it and opened their doors and I got to work with a lot of those master animators which was amazing.”
His parents had advised him to send it to the studio he most admired, but to temper his expectations. “I got a letter back from them and there was the Disney envelope. I was kind of like: ‘Holy crap!’ because my parents had basically said: ‘Start with who you admire the most and when you get a no from them, go to the person you admire next. Go down the list, then whoever accepts you is the best you can get’.
“I thought that made sense and I sent it to Disney, not thinking that they’re going to particularly like it, and sure enough they came back and said: ‘Would you like to work with some of our animators?’”
As lively and exuberant in person as many of the characters he’s brought to the big screen, Bird grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, a town in which a career in movies didn’t seem a possibility.
“It wasn’t a cultural backwater or anything, I’m just saying it was not considered something that anyone did, he says, adding he’d be told: “Other people do it, they don’t know anyone who ever made it to Hollywood. It’s much more important to be the backup quarterback on a junior college football team than it is to work in movies.”
However at home, his natural flair for storytelling and creativity was being noticed and fostered by his family.
“My parents, on the other end of the spectrum, were like: ‘Anything you want to do, you can do it. You’ll have to work your butt off, but if you’re into it, absolutely’, and they could not have been more supportive. Especially my mom, who was throwing logs on every creative fire that I had going. Not pushing me, it was more like if she saw that I was interested in something, she would try to feed it, and give me what I needed to do it.”
As well as The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird brought us the utterly charming The Iron Giant earlier in his career.
After moving into live-action direction in recent years, helming Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and the sci-fi/fantasy film Tomorrowland, the director is returning to the family he first brought to the big screen 14 years ago.
The Incredibles 2 is a joy, laden with the attention to detail and mischievously funny family dynamics that were present in the first film. Elastagirl is a star of the show, Violet’s growing pains will resonate with everyone and baby Jack-Jack’s discovery that he has superpowers is the highlight of the movie.
Just don’t call it a kids’ film — Bird is adamant that animation is for everyone. The majority of audiences who saw it in the US on opening weekend were over 17.
“That’s the kind of audience I’ve been trying to aim for forever,” he says. “It’s fine with me if kids come, and they’re welcome in the same way that I liked going to James Bond films and Dr Zhivago when I was a kid. But those were not films that were aimed at me.
“I think I always wanted to know what my older sisters were interested in seeing. Or the teenagers that I knew, you were always wanting to see what they think is cool.
“If something is aimed at you, 99 times out of a hundred it’s going to be patronising.”
Producer John Walker agrees. “We’ve been at Pixar for 18 years and we have never participated in a discussion about any film with talks about children, how we need to do this for kids, ever. It’s always about: Is this working for us? Do we care? Are we making movies that we like?”
It’s a culture that Bird says he has kicked against through his entire career, and finds the idea that animated films should be only aimed at children limiting to the medium.
“And then I was thinking, to them the fact that it’s animated says it’s a children’s film and that was a limitation of whoever was saying that’s thinking. We love the medium of animation and we don’t see it as limited to kids.”
Bird and Walker, who has a background in theatre production and acting, first worked together on The Iron Giant, now regarded as a classic but at the time a challenging production that underperformed at the box office. By the time it was made, Warner Bros was scaling back its animation operation.
“At the time the wisdom was if you wanted people to manage animation, theatre is the place you should raid because the skills a theatre manager has are useful and can dovetail nicely with animation,” says Bird.
They include raising finance, artist management and cost control.
“The technical part is the least of it. What made me want him to be the producer of The Incredibles after working with him is he’d clearly, having been an actor himself, understood the artist’s viewpoint. But he also knew that you don’t just roll over for artists because they’ll take advantage of you just like anyone else. He had this very nice way of being able to kiss ass at certain points and kick it at others.”
“I really had no knowledge of animation at all, but I’ve been taking a masterclass for the last 20 years!” laughs Walker.
“Brad is a brilliant director. You don’t see it that often and frankly you see a lot of hacks. He understands every aspect of the process and loves it. He’s a good leader — and often times that’s the one thing that’s missing in a director. We have 300, 400 people working on these things. You have got to inspire them.”
The Incredibles 2 opens tomorrow