Brad Bird won an Oscar this year for BEST ANIMATED FILM with Ratatouille. As someone with kids, I’ve watched a number of his animated films. I have watched them more than any other films I like. Because they are animated kids films, it might seem ridiculous to consider Bird an auteur. But if you agree with the auteur theory which “champions the idea that a film (or a body of work) by a director reflects the personal vision and preoccupations of that director” (from Wikipedia), then Bird is an auteur.
In the three Bird’s film I have mentioned, there is a common preoccupation with the ideas of being misunderstood and being great. The Iron Giant, the Incredibles, and Remy (the rat) are all misunderstood. And all are great. All three of them struggle with others who don’t appreciate their greatness. Worse, they are seen as a danger to others, so they have to hide their greatness, and only manage to exercise it after a struggle. (Remy is a danger to any restaurant that has him in it.)
In The Incredibles, there is an elitism to that greatness. Bird’s shows you are either great or you are not, and no amount of smarts or gizmos can make up for it. The line “If everyone is super, no one is.” is used a number of times. This elitism softens somewhat in Ratatouille. There is still that separation of the great from the not great, but it is not always obvious who is great and who is not. This is very different from The Incredibles, where it is obvious that the Supers are obviously better than you and I.
Elitism comes up in a number of ways in Ratatouille. The notion that “anyone can cook” is scoffed at by the wonderfully named critic, Anton Ego. As well, the chefs themselves are superior. And of course, it is set in France, the home of elitism (at least as seen by many Americans). But this elitism is pushed back in a number of ways. For example, the best cook is a rat, and the best dish prepared is ratatouille.
But these films are more than just about misunderstood geniuses. Love is highlighted in different ways in the different films. In The Iron Giant, there is a father-son bond between the boy and the giant. In The Incredibles, there is the love of family. And in Ratatouille, there is romantic love. Love is one of the driving forces.
In The Incredibles, my favourite of the three, there is also something I think that is quite incredible: a signifigantly long portion at the beginning exploring midlife crisis in a “kid’s movie”. The best animated films have always sprinkled adult subtext in them — especially humour — to help adults enjoy the films at a level that kids can’t appreciate. (It’s almost like a dog whistle). But Bird deftly explores the problems that Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) has as he struggles with his job as an claims adjuster. Bob struggles with this throughout the film, but it is strongest and sustained at the beginning.
This works really well, but it took my four year old son to show me why. When we saw the film for the first time in movie theatres, we all enjoyed the entire film. However, when we bought the DVD, my son quickly learned to scene select past all that midlife crises part (which takes up a good third of the film, it appears) and get right to the action. The film is so well made that it is easy for a four year old to deconstruct it in a way that he can still enjoy it, yet an adult can appreciate the entire film. It may sound easy to do (to structure a film like that), but I think it is rarely done, which is odd, since I suspect that MOST kids will skip to the good parts over time.
The characters are so well named in all the films, but I love the names in The Incredibles. When they are not the Incredibles, they are an average family, the Parrs. The weird kid Buddy goes on to be a bad guy called Syndrome. The French bad guy who blows things up called Bomb Voyage. The shrinking daughter is called Violet, and the very attractive young woman who is seemingly attracted to the middle aged guy is called Mirage.
Which brings me to Edna Mode, who seems to be a cross between Edith Head and Anna Wintour (and who is performed by Brad Bird himself). She is my favourite film character in a long time. My kids and I would rerun just the parts she was in. She is devastatingly funny and a great creation.
It almost goes without saying that the film technique of each of the films from Bird (and Pixar) get better each time. However, the attention to detail is not just in making more realistic animation. It is spread throughout the film. When making ratatouille in the last film, there is a wonderfully animated part where the person making the dish naturally cuts out parchment and places it over the food before placing it in the oven. This is as it should be, but it is one of many examples in Ratatouille where they make the effort to include details even if most people couldn’t care less. Ridley Scott gets high marks for such things: Brad Bird should too.
Bird considers animation to be an art form. It is when he makes it.
If you were to ask people about auteurs at this years Oscars, they might point out the Coen brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson. But there was another auteur there as well, and if you want to see good filmmaking, I suggest you check out his films.
Bird has a new film coming out in 2009. I am looking forward to it. (And lord knows, I will likely see it forty times, whether I want to or not! )