Movies

Brad Bird is the word

Brad Bird
Deborah Coleman/Pixar
Brad Bird

Brad Bird can tell you the moment he made the decision to try for a career in animation. He had recently turned 10, and was sitting in the State Theatre in Corvallis, Ore., watching Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” when he says an epiphany hit: A lot goes into making movies. I want to be a part of that.

Bird’s route to his dream included practicing his natural drawing skills, getting a tripod and a single-frame camera, then, from ages 11 through 14, making his 15-minute animated version of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Bird sent the film to Disney. The studio responded with a full-tuition scholarship for the character animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, which he parlayed into an offer to become a Disney animator.

From there, the budding filmmaker quickly moved on to write and direct the animated “Family Dog” episode of Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” series, and then logged eight seasons as a consultant on “The Simpsons.” The success of his first feature film, “The Iron Giant,” brought him back to the Disney fold, where he wrote and directed the Disney-Pixar production of “The Incredibles.”

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Now, 14 years after the release of that Oscar- and Hugo Award-winning film about Bob and Helen Parr and their family of “supers,” and after directing the food- and rodent-themed animated film “Ratatouille” (2007) as well as the live-action movies “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland,” Bird returns with “Incredibles 2.” Opening June 15, it picks up the story a few seconds after the first one ends, and shifts a lot of the focus to Helen (voice of Holly Hunter) rather than Bob (Craig T. Nelson).

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Bird, 60, recently spoke about his career and “Incredibles 2” by phone from Mexico City, where he was in the middle of a publicity tour.

Q. What was it about “The Jungle Book” that knocked you upside the head?

A. I had seen a lot of animated films, and I kind of knew that there was a lot of drawing involved. But it wasn’t until I saw “The Jungle Book” that I realized that someone had to figure out how a stuffy panther would move. That meant they not only had to differentiate a cat from any other kind of animal, but a specific kind of cat, a large cat; and not just a large cat, but a large cat with a stuffy personality. Something snapped in me, and I thought, “That’s someone’s job, to do that, and maybe being an adult is going to be really exciting, maybe it doesn’t have to be a drag,” which is what most kids think adults are — kind of slow-moving, slow-talking drags. Suddenly it seemed to me that the world was full of really fascinating people that had really amazing jobs, and that kind of started me on the road to animation.

Q. “The Iron Giant” was released in 1999, and “The Incredibles” came out in 2004. Is it true that you had a lot of ideas for “The Incredibles” worked out even before “The Iron Giant?”

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A. I had a story that was vaguely similar. It was about a fantastic character, in a fantasy world, who was past his prime. He had gained weight and he was kind of reduced to reenacting past battles in a shopping mall to make a living. I took that idea and thought: What if he was a superhero? From there I asked myself a lot of questions, slowly, over the years. Was the superhero married? Yeah, he’s married. Is she also a superhero? I thought, yeah! And it went from there.

Q. We spoke when you came to Boston to promote “The Incredibles” 14 years ago, and I asked if you were already thinking of doing a sequel. You said if you could come up with something that is to “The Incredibles” what “Toy Story 2” was to “Toy Story,” you would be interested. How did that process go?

A. I already had the core notion that Helen would get the [superhero] assignment rather than Bob, and that Bob would be forced to stay home while Helen was doing the thing that he wishes he was doing. I also knew that I had the unplayed card of [their son] Jack-Jack, that the audience knew he had multiple powers, but the Parrs did not. I thought that was kind of delicious, and knew that any sequel I had would have to deal with it. But the superhero-villain story and the plotty part of it was changing the entire time we were making it. I had a release date, then my original pitch for the villain didn’t work out, so I had a release date and a gun to my head. The core idea of Bob and Helen switching places was always there, but all the other stuff changed.

Q. Both of your “Incredibles” films are funny and exciting, but they’re also filled with peril. Do you consciously balance those elements in your head before you write the scripts?

A. No, I think it kind of flows naturally. I always felt that Woody Allen’s serious films were better when they had a little comedy in them. I was more convinced by something like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” than by “Alice” or “Interiors.” I think there’s natural comedy in life, and it feels organic to me. That said, the “Incredibles” movies are meant to be adventures. Most of the adventures I really love have some comedy in them. If you go back to the ’30s and look at “Gunga Din,” there’s a really infectious, almost goofy quality to it, even though it’s epic in scale. I appreciate that. I love it in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where the comedy is never excluded, but it never interferes with the danger or the suspense.

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Q. There’s a lot of danger in “Incredibles 2.”

A. You know, you’re always fighting people who assume that animation is for kids. I don’t see it that way; I see it as a way to tell a story. I keep trying to prod Disney into saying that if a kid is under the age of 7, you should think twice before taking them to this movie. Don’t take them just because it’s animated, because some of it is a little intense, and you may want them to be a little bit older before they see it. Of course, some 5-year olds can handle it, but some can’t.

Q. After spending so much time on “Incredibles 2,” have you managed to catch any other films recently?

A. I don’t get to see many when I’m finishing one of my own. But I did see “A Quiet Place” in the theater, and “Blithe Spirit” at home.

Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.