Brad Bird’s wide-ranging career so far is most remarkable for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that despite only having directed four feature films (and only one of these live-action), he has become one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. Indeed, the producers of Star Wars tapped Bird up for the directing gig on The Force Awakens before he declined in order to focus on his own project Tomorrowland. The second is that despite his enormous successes – his four features have grossed almost $2 billion – from a creative, stylistic and directorial standpoint Brad Bird is still something of an unknown quantity.
Whilst you can be damn sure that anything Bird has put his name to will be well worth the entrance fee, the scattershot nature of his prosperous career so far means that any guesses as to what he’ll decide to work on next would be pure conjecture (the announcement of his helming of The Incredibles 2 notwithstanding). From the nostalgia-drenched ’50s Americana of The Iron Giant to the upcoming shimmering utopias of Tomorrowland – via the bright, vibrant and fully-realised worlds of The Incredibles and Ratatouille – Bird has shown that he is just as comfortable gleefully satirising the superhero genre as he is smuggling a potent political allegory into a “kids’ film”. Looking at his body of work, is there a way of defining what constitutes a Brad Bird film?
One common thread that runs through his films is their wicked sense of fun, as well as their keen knack for commentary and satire. Having got his first major job in the animation business as an executive consultant on heyday-era Simpsons, Bird has been well-versed since the early nineties in delivering warm-hearted loveliness with a razor-sharp and super-relevant edge. This sharpness is possessed in droves by Bird, and his audience-savvy deliverance of it is what makes an ostensible children’s film resonate with all ages – particularly film-literate adults – and epitomises the brilliance that Pixar were capable of during their peerless “golden age” (Finding Nemo to Toy Story 3 – discounting Cars – depending on who you ask).
His glorious lampooning of the restaurant and fashion industries, which gave us characters as memorable as the diminutive Edna “no capes” Mode and the vampiric food critic Anton Ego, is a joy for children due to the hysterical animation and brilliantly delivered lines, but is elevated to a whole new level for adults who will appreciate the pinpoint accuracy of these well-drawn caricatures.
It’s not just Brad Bird’s characters that make his films so memorable and fun – the fully-realised worlds that he creates in tandem with his design teams and animators are equally as essential to their vitality. The clean modernity of the world of The Incredibles perfectly evokes the comic books from which it was born, and Ratatouille’s sumptuous depiction of the cobbled streets of Paris stands up as one of Pixar’s greatest achievements. Bird’s first feature, The Iron Giant, also succeeds in no small part thanks to the creation of its world, having brilliantly captured the fear and loneliness of the era so that it wouldn’t be outlandish to call it something of a mood piece. No mean feat for a hand-drawn adaptation of Ted Hughes’ 60-page children’s book.
Not that his talents lie solely in the field of animation. Undeterred by Bird’s complete lack of experience in live-action filmmaking, the producers of the Mission: Impossible franchise saw him as the man to front the fourth entry in the series, and first in five years, Ghost Protocol. Their faith in his wit and skill in building fully-realised worlds was well-placed, as he proved equally as adept at expanding an existing movie universe as creating his own. What could have all too easily been a tired and irrelevant retread of an ageing action franchise became a bold, funny, and energetic treat, and the best-received and highest-grossing M:I entry so far.
From what little we can gather of Tomorrowland from its shiny, exciting and refreshingly vague trailers (with plot details being guarded like Area 51), Bird looks to be continuing exactly what he has done so far in creating a full, believable and uncompromising vision of the story he wants to tell the world. Add to that the news that he will be in the director’s chair for Pixar’s long-awaited follow-up to The Incredibles and his potential involvement with the ongoing Star Wars masterplan (see below), and we have a critically and commercially adored director very much poised to become a household name (and a writer pleased to have got this far without a single laboured “Bird” pun).