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Published: Friday, 6/29/2007

Filmmaker Brad Bird flavors movies with complexity

Sometimes you hit a nerve.

Brad Bird's, and I'm assuming this from the volume of his voice at the moment, has something to do with a very American ideal, the one that says if you put your heart into something, if you believe in yourself unconditionally, you can do it - you're a winner.

His face turns a pale red.

The red of, well, not a beet.

More a shade of nectarine.

"My sons have rooms full of trophies. Like from floor to ceiling. For stuff I don't understand. Stuff I don't think they showed for! Rooms full of meaningless trophies! For occasionally showing up! But not that I have any feelings about that or anything."

No, not at all.

Bird, who made The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille, which opens today, has become unique among animators. He started at Disney, studying under the legendary cadre of animators known as the Nine Old Men, who made everything from Snow White to Lady and the Tramp; he spent eight seasons on The Simpsons. But Bird also is becoming the first mainstream American director of animation, in the entire history of film, to be recognizable for his outlook, for his visual style - for his oeuvre.

You know, like a director.

Animation tends to be a creator's medium. Characters are invented, outlooks established (often by writers). Studios develop house styles; you could tell the difference between a Pixar, a Disney, or a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes without prompting. (As in life, the eyes give it away.) But the actual directing of an animated movie tends to be anonymous work, despite being much like live-action filmmaking (only more fragmented, and slower).

Bird, who made Iron Giant for Warner, and his last two under Pixar, has a number of distinct touches, but foremost: His subjects are not driven by typically huggable animated heroes. And, if you must take away a moral, that moral would be that not everything works out for everyone, that mediocrity, and not magic, is the natural state of the world.

Ratatouille, for instance, is about a rat with a natural inclination in the kitchen - he can cook far better than its young chef, whom he manipulates like a marionette. But the world is not ready for rat chefs, and some dreams must be put aside. And in The Incredibles, much is made of the value of meeting your potential in a culture that wants to believe everyone has a talent.

"There's a well-meaning thing right now that tells us everyone should get a trophy," Bird says, "the point of which renders people who are gifted meaningless. I think we want to spare unpleasant feelings. But guess what? Unpleasant things happen. It's called reality. I think parents, and often animated movies, try to protect kids from life, and that's not good. Why does the kid who shows up sometimes get a trophy, too? I think we're punishing people who are committed."

Without giving anything away, Ratatouille ends on a slightly vague note, and with perhaps a little subtle sadness: the world, you could argue, will never know where the genius of its kitchen comes from, maybe for the best.

The other note you can't help but detect is how sophisticated and specific the movie is about the world of foodies - of people obsessed with good food. Bird doesn't count himself in. He came to the picture only after giving his two cents to a script by Pixar animator Jan Pinkava, which he explained is how the animation house works: periodically they have staff meetings, much like the peer reviews that art students go through, and everyone lends a fresh perspective on what everyone else is working on. Bird sanded down Pinkava's screenplay to a handful of ideas, and ended up finishing the film, which required the kind of research one generally has to win.

"We flew to Paris, blasted through a bunch of four-star restaurants, so many in such a short time it literally hurt," he says. The animators took cooking classes; producer Brad Lewis (who made Antz) became a full-time intern at the French Laundry in Napa Valley - its chef, Thomas Keller, often called the finest in America, lent technical advice to the picture, and even gave a vocal cameo as a customer who wants to know if the chef has made anything new lately. "Homework was done," Lewis says. "We went as far as inventing actual menus for the restaurant, and they were good."

But one thing nagged Bird:

How do you show taste?

So in the film, when Remy the rat samples a plate, the background goes black, and with each taste, a color or pattern or swirl is added - sort of like the animated flourishes in Fantasia that gave each musical note a shape. "I wanted to show the sensation that goes through a creative person's mind as they are cooking. The trick of screenwriting is to have complex ideas but not present them in a complex way. Complexity comes when the audience takes one suggestion here and one there and puts them together. Everyone takes away something different. Cooking is like this. You paint with smell, texture, taste. If you're good, you think this way."

Just the day before, he was in Chicago, at the restaurant Avenues; its young much-lauded chef Graham Bowles made him a dessert that did this, he says: "It was his version of going to movies. I was tasting weird blends of salt and popcorn-flavored ice cream and connecting to caramel, there was a chocolate thing in it, licorice in it, and a cola taste over here, Pop Rocks sprinkled on top, the taste of Milk Duds in it - sounds like it should not work, yet it did. He had me flashing back to a million days spent at the movies."

It was Bowles' tribute to Ratatouille, he says. He was floored. Good food, the movie says, is not about ingredients or technique but the resonance a dish makes with the person who tastes it. "Every chef we talked to felt that way," Lewis says. "They got into cooking because of a childhood experience they wished to recreate for themselves and others."

It's almost as if, well, Ratatouille is not for kids - Pixar's pictures have never seemed designed squarely for children, but this, the subject, the foodie-ness of it, none of it bears the mark of appealing to any demographic. Like The Incredibles, Ratatouille feels as if it just happens to be animated. There's not even a children's menu hot dog or a plate of chicken fingers in sight.

No, it's not for kids, Bird says.

"Kids appreciate it," he adds. But the idea, he goes on, as it's always been with his movies, is to make something that he likes. "And if I like it, hopefully everyone else will want to tag along."

- Christopher Borrelli



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