Animation directors rarely accrue status as major filmmakers in America, but Brad Bird is in a class of his own. An art-school colleague of Tim Burton who went on to become a key creative force in shaping “The Simpsons,” Bird is a pivotal figure in exploring the American dream through the vernacular of popular culture. From the way Cold War anxieties play off the imagination of a young boy in “The Iron Giant” to the brilliant injection of the nuclear-family dynamics into superhero tropes with “The Incredibles,” Bird combines crackling, otherworldly storytelling with intelligent sociopolitical investigation.
Well, almost. Animation has provided such a key vessel for Bird’s aesthetic that it was bound to suffer a bit in translation, and Bird’s two forays into live action fall short. All the more reason to celebrate his return to the animated form with “Incredibles 2,” opening this week, and to look back on a tight filmography of six features produced across nearly 20 years. It’s safe to say that Bird, who turned 60 last fall, has better mileage than many more prolific filmmakers out there.
6. “Tomorrowland” (2015)
Bird’s only genuine flop, “Tomorrowland” has all the markings of a family-friendly sci-fi classic but lacks the polish necessary to make that formula click. Co-written with Damon Lindelof, the movie revolves around a brilliant inventor (George Clooney) joining forces with a teen science geek (Britt Robertson) as they travel to the titular dimension and uncover the decade-spanning efforts of a secret society to advance humankind. While the Space Age iconography and Disneyesque idealism shine through, it’s often stuck between the awe-inspiring possibilities of discovering a new world and the markings of a more hackneyed action-thriller with outdated special effects. It doesn’t help that the stakes — the fate of the world — feel oddly familiar, in part because Bird has made better versions of this scenario before.
5. “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
Bird’s inaugural live-action effort is a natural outlet for the action sensibilities he explored in his animated features. It also allowed him to vanish into the material: Tom Cruise may be the real auteur behind the “Mission Impossible” franchise, running from one frame to the next with such cartoonish velocity it often seem as though he might tumble off the frame. That’s especially true in “Ghost Protocol,” which finds superspy Ethan Hunt breaking out of a Russian prison and going underground to stop a nuclear showdown. The stakes are sky-high, and also pretty much disposable excuses for some of the most outrageous action sequences in recent American cinema: There’s that ridiculous, adrenaline-pumping moment where Ethan dangles from the outside of the world’s tallest building, nearly tumbling on more than one occasion, which seems readymade for IMAX screens; ditto a climactic parking-lot showdown where Ethan speeds a BPW straight into the ground.
As pure spectacle goes, “Ghost Protocol” delivers on a franchise that has fought to complicate its standards for rollercoaster cinema each time out. Coming from a director whose two previous features landed best screenplay adaptations, however, the movie is a hollow tangent into franchise filmmaking that suggests Bird’s instincts work best in the more playful arena of animation. The movie hinted at an inevitability that “Tomorrowland” confirmed: Bird belonged back at Pixar. And so, seven years later…
4. “Incredibles 2” (2018)
It turned out this assessment was true. Bird’s return to the exploits of the superpowered Parr family picks up right where he left off 14 years ago, and it’s a pleasure to get back to them. Bird again excels at burrowing into family disputes while targeting the commercial branding of superheroes. He also manages to rebalance the movie’s gender politics, as Helen — aka Elastigirl — is recruited by a grinning entrepreneur Winston Deavor for an ambitious plan to bring superheroes back into favor after the law turns against them. Rather than simply foregrounding Helen for the sake of political correctness, “Incredibles 2” engages head-on, in a hilarious bit that finds Mr. Incredible himself going through great pains just to give his wife a compliment. (He gets there, eventually.) Then there’s the legitimate adolescent struggles facing Violet, whose invisibility powers really come into their metaphor this time around as she struggles with boy problems.
In other words, this movie manages to be fearless about touchy subject matters even as it maintains a breezy vibe, much like the first. It’s almost moot that the final act dissolves into a bunch of short-circuited action sequences and tidy resolutions, because they’re grounded in the legitimate stakes of the Parr family itself. That’s something even the slickest Marvel product can never claim. Still, it would be nothing without…
3. “The Incredibles” (2004)
When Bird’s deconstruction of superhero mythos through the lens of working-class Americana first came out, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was limited to Eric Bana’s “Hulk.” Bird forged new ground by delivering a bonafide superhero action movie with emotional stakes, opening with a bracing showdown and the cruel punchline that finds Mr. Incredible, retired from the scene to support his family, saddled with an office job. There may be no more potent metaphor in mainstream cinema for the dissolution of the American dream. Bird scored his first Oscar for best animated feature, but more crucially, his screenplay landed a nomination. That’s rare for any animation writer, and a testament to just how well the movie gives voice to the sophisticated desires of a family unit divided on its priorities. “Incredibles” arrived almost a decade after “Toy Story,” and its success created the impression of peak Pixar — an involving story carried along by whiz-bang action that resonates with purpose. But it’s actually a Brad Bird movie: a savvy look at the forces driving American fantasies, and what it feels like when reality comes rushing in. As it happens, no matter how enjoyable the action scenes, they’re the weakest scenes in a movie with more intelligent chatter than any other animated movie in Disney’s oeuvre, ever. (Sorry, Walt.)
2. “Ratatouille” (2007)
With the confidence of “The Incredibles” behind him, Bird tackled a more intangible subject matter with the same effortless blend of emotional entertainment and intellectual inquiry. The tale of Remy (Patton Oswalt, whose voice work here marks his best performance, period), a rat with culinary instincts that lead him to hoist a Parisian kitchen to stardom, starts out as a poetic ode to food and expands into a sophisticated look at the struggle to maintain creative passions when faced with traditionalism. “You can’t change nature,” Remi’s father says, snorting at his son’s rejection of the rats’ scavenging instincts in favor of refined tastes. “Change is nature,” Remy spits back, in a stunning, poignant moment among many in this wise movie, which scored Bird another Oscar and a screenplay nomination. “Ratatouille” also features the snazziest look of any Pixar movie prior to “Inside Out,” replicating the stony architecture of the Parisian landscape with a whole new sense of scale, with Bird rediscovering the city all over again with the precision of a master architect.
The climactic review of Remy’s signature dish, delivered by restaurant critic Anton Ego, registers as condescending to anyone who takes the critical process seriously — but it’s nevertheless a striking monologue on the way personal desire runs counter to institutional pressures for conformity. Ego wants to be impressed by something good, and he’s caught off guard by something he didn’t expect. That’s the essence of Remy’s uphill battle: How could a rat possibly delivery a heavenly pasta? But he does. “Anyone can cook” is more than just the movie’s mantra; it points to the broader mission statement of an artist keen on finding high art in unlikely places.
1. “The Iron Giant” (1999)
Bird’s feature-length debut arrived after two decades of top-shelf work in the animation business, and it’s the kind of polished aesthetic achievement that some filmmakers spend their entire careers trying to land. A fascinating blend of “E.T.” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Bird’s remarkable 2D masterpiece might sound like a disposable Disney heart-warmer on paper — child befriends giant robot from space — but it pushes beyond that formula to become a striking Cold War allegory as well as a warning call about the dangers of a military panic.
The bright, colorful palette positions the story as a kind of storybook reimagining of mid-century America through the lens of its own mythology, while the robot presents the boy with the possibility of a bond that extends beyond his sociopolitical constraints. It’s almost too easy to pigeonhole the movie as “Spielbergian,” though it does ape Spielberg’s key motifs. But the movie digs deeper than “E.T.” in its final act, which involves a coming-of-age revelation that doesn’t let humanity off the hook.
Beyond that, the Warner Bros. production is the purest example of Bird’s strengths as a visual filmmaker whose images imbue familiar iconography with new depths of intimacy and meaning. He would become a sharper writer in future screenplays — but “The Iron Giant” has the concise brilliance of a silent film, and like the best of that era, it’s just as timeless.