The Brad Bird origin story begins outside a Montana movie theater where, after a screening of The Jungle Book, the 10-year-old Bird asked his parents, “How do I do that?” “Something in me snapped,” Bird recalls in the 2016 documentary The Giant’s Dream: The Making of the Iron Giant — and that snapping propelled him along the course he’d follow the rest of his life.
Through family connections, Bird was able to tour Disney the following year, meeting its famed animators and saying he’d like to do what they do. It’s a declaration a lot of kids might make in the excitement of such a moment. But Bird wasn’t like a lot of kids. He taught himself animation basics and sent his work back to Disney, earning an internship at the studio at the age of 14, the first of its kind Disney had ever offered. There, he was mentored by his hero, animation legend Milt Kahl. He kept up the relationship with Disney, too, attending CalArts on a Disney animation scholarship and then going to work for the company.
The Brad Bird origin story ends a short time later, not with success but frustration, thanks to an experience that seems to have charged his creative drive and locked in some of themes he’d explore with his work. Bird joined a Disney in decline, one he felt was failing to live up to standards created by the old masters, most of whom were retiring. “These bunglers,” Bird recalls of those taking over, “tended to play everything so safe, which is a bore.” In time, Bird’s conflict with his superiors prompted them to fire him, not long after he worked on the 1981 feature The Fox and the Hound. They turned him into a creator with something to prove. The kid who asked “How do I do that?” set out to show others how it ought to be done.
With Bird’s latest, Incredibles 2, soon to hit theaters, Vulture has ranked Bird’s six features, a task not made any easier by the brevity of his rich filmography. Bird’s perfectionist tendencies are evident in his films. Every detail matters, from the beautifully realized landscapes of the worlds in which they take place to the smallest expressive details of the characters who inhabit those worlds. Yet they’re too kinetic, and too emotionally rich to feel fussed over. Those talents didn’t develop overnight, however. So before we get to the ranking, let’s briefly look at the years leading up to his feature debut.
7. Shorts and Sneak Previews
An alternate filmography could be made of the projects Bird wasn’t able to bring to the screen, including an animated adaptation of Will Eisner’s influential comic strip The Spirit, a project Bird developed with Eisner in the early ’80s. (An intriguing pencil test still survives.) Instead, he knocked around TV and animation for a while, working on projects like the Steven Spielberg anthology series Amazing Stories. There he wrote and directed an animated second-season episode featuring designs by fellow CalArts alum turned Disney refugee Tim Burton.
When it aired in February of 1987, “Family Dog” earned the struggling series more attention and acclaim than it had received in a while. It also featured, along with cleverly constructed gags and an occasionally macabre sense of humor, animation of a quality rarely seen on television in the ’80s.
Later that same year, Bird earned his first screenplay credit as one of four credited writers of *batteries not included, a Spielberg-produced movie about the residents of a New York apartment building who resist the efforts of an unscrupulous real-estate developer — shades of Trump — with the help of some tiny extraterrestrial machines. The film began as an episode of Amazing Stories and might have worked better in that format. Directed by Matthew Robbins, it lays on the sentiment way too thick. But the creatures are endearing and one character — an artist who wants to defend the building because it embodies the values of an past age with higher standards — foreshadows Bird heroes to come.
The success of “Family Dog,” which was later turned into a short-lived series sans its creator, gave Bird a chance to put his stamp all over the TV animation renaissance of the ’90s. During that decade he worked on King of the Hill, The Critic, Rugrats, and, most significantly, The Simpsons, a show Bird called home for eight years. But what he really wanted to do was make movies.
6. Tomorrowland (2015)
Of those movies, only one counts as a misfire. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof (with story work by Jeff Jensen), Bird looked to the Tomorrowland attractions at Disney’s theme parks for inspiration. (Bird had come back into the Disney fold by way of his work with Pixar.) But instead of imagining a possible future waiting just around the corner, the film looks to yesteryear’s vision of a better tomorrow and wonders why it never arrived. George Clooney plays Frank Walker, an inventor who first visited a secret, scientifically advanced utopian city as a child but has since become exiled from it. To save the world, he must return with the help of inventive teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson).
Tomorrowland has all the parts of a great Brad Bird film, but it can’t seem to figure out how they fit together. It’s beautifully designed and features both clever action sequences and an intriguing concept that allows Bird to explore some of his pet themes, including a sense that we’ve lost touch with older, better ways. The central message — that even in the face of gloomy news and potential catastrophe, we should maintain a sense of hope — is sweet and easily digested by an all-ages audience (it’s also really tough to miss). But instead of inspiring, it comes off as grumpy and chiding, a long, visually stunning lament that things just aren’t the way they used to be. The occasional swipes against dystopian entertainment illustrate the central problem: Bird doesn’t have the taste for their pessimism, but he also doesn’t attempt to grapple with why these dark visions have found purchase in today’s cultural climate. That it’s anchored by one of the least charming performances Clooney has ever delivered doesn’t help. Still, as an intriguing collection of ideas, it’s worth a look.
5. Incredibles 2 (2018)
The biggest problem with Bird’s delightful sequel to his 2004 film The Incredibles is that The Incredibles is a tough act to follow. The original introduced a fascinating alternate 1960s world made in equal parts from classic Marvel comics and Connery-era James Bond movies and filled it with memorable characters. Unavoidably, Incredibles 2 can’t be as surprising as the first film. In some ways it doesn’t even try, picking up the action at the very moment The Incredibles ended. But it also immediately establishes that the characters will remain just as charming, the family dynamic just as charged, and the action scenes will rival those of its predecessor. If it’s more of the same, is that really such a bad thing?
The answer: Decidedly not, even if the film struggles a bit as it tries to juggle a bunch of new ideas — particularly those concerning the downsides of a screen-addicted world — while pushing its central family into the next chapter of their lives. That mostly involves splitting the family apart. As Elastigirl becomes the public face of a movement to restore trust in superheroes, Mr. Incredible stays at home and cares for the kids solo, a task made especially wearying when the youngest member of the family, Jack-Jack, starts to manifest some powers of his own. The characters remain winning, and endearingly relatable, as they battle a supervillain while confronting all the problems of an ordinary family — and both the world of the film and the action sequences are as captivating as the first time around.
4. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
How good is Brad Bird? His entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise is not only the best of a series whose other directors include Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Christopher McQuarrie, it’s one of the best action films of this century. And yet it’s only the fourth-best film Bird’s made. For his live-action debut, Bird wastes no time establishing he knows what he’s doing. An early setpiece in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) escapes from a Moscow prison sets a high bar cleared by one sequence after another. In one stretch, he follows a breathtaking scene outside the upper floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, with a chase through a sandstorm that takes a dreamlike turn.
It was also, by all evidence, not the easiest job. Both Cruise’s career and the Mission: Impossible series had seen better days, Bird partly shot the film with tough-to-manage IMAX cameras, and future M:I helmer McQuarrie came in mid-shoot to rework the script. That tinkering is mostly evident in the streamlined story. Ghost Protocol features the simplest plot in a series that was then known for its convoluted narratives. It doesn’t suffer from the pruning, however, which just allows more room for the action scenes that have set the M:I films apart ever since Cruise blew up an aquarium back in 1996. A stunning accomplishment, it misses the top three spots only because it doesn’t give Bird much of a chance to plumb the emotional depths of his best movies. He may match other M:I directors thrill-for-thrill, but look beneath those thrills and you won’t find all that much — which might be asking a lot of a long-running series defined more by its stunts and explosions than its characters anyway.
3. Ratatouille (2007)
On the other hand, Bird’s third feature, his second with Pixar, is all heart. He came to Ratatouille almost by accident, taking over when Pixar removed original director Jan Pinkava from the project. When Bird arrived, he took the basic concept of a rat with dreams of becoming a chef and reworked it into a Brad Bird movie. Patton Oswalt supplies the voice of Remy, a French rat with a refined palette who idolizes Auguste Gusteau, a celebrity chef whose once-lauded restaurant has fallen into a comfortable rut since Gusteau’s death. (Any resemblance to Disney may not be coincidental.) Remy finds a vessel for his aspirations when he befriends and learns to control Alfredo Linguini (voiced by Pixar animator Lou Romano), Gusteau’s illegitimate son who begins working at the restaurant as a lowly garbage boy.
Bird turns that oddball premise into a meditation on the role cooking — and by extension, every form of creativity — plays in our lives and the need to make room for the gifted to express their talents. There’s a touch of elitism to that setup, a charge that Brad has opened himself up to more than once by positing that conventional wisdom and the unthinking masses sometimes get in the way of those with extraordinary talents. (More on that below.) But the giddiness with which Remy pursues his passion, to say nothing of the image of a cartoon rat working in a gourmet kitchen, deflates any pomposity. And a climax involving a snooty critic (voiced by Peter O’Toole in one of this final roles) reconnecting with his youth via the eponymous peasant dish makes a lovely case for the soul-restoring powers of great art — no matter who’s behind it. Folded into the stunning cooking sequences and wild chases through the streets of Paris is a perfectionist’s defense of perfectionism.
2. The Incredibles (2004)
Bird made his Pixar debut with a story about a family of superheroes trying to navigate a world in which superheroism has been outlawed. It’s part Fantastic Four, part ’60s spy-fi movie, but Bird makes into more than a mere act of homage. Between — and sometimes during — thrilling action sequences, The Incredibles explores two ideas at once, letting them intertwine in compelling combinations: What are the privileges and obligations of those with special gifts? And how can we maintain our sense of self — and keep romance alive — as age and obligations take us further and further away from the dreams of our youth?
Over the course of the film, the former Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) experience various types of midlife crises while their children experience growing pains of their own, from painful shyness to chronic boredom. That’s a lot for an animated superhero movie to take on, but Bird has long championed animation as a form capable of telling any kind of story, and he proves it here, making the Parr family’s adventures into a moving fight to keep the family intact in a world that claims not to need them anymore. The film also prompted some to suggest it’s a thinly veiled defense of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, a tough argument to take too far, as The Atlantic’s David Sims has pointed out, with a story about characters compelled to help others. At heart, the film’s less concerned with those who take and those who make than how superheroes can embody our best aspirations, and the frustration and self-destruction that creep in when our dreams start to slip away.
1. The Iron Giant (1999)
It would be unfair to say that Bird has had trouble topping his first feature, 1999’s The Iron Giant. He’s made one extraordinary film after another since that debut. He just happened to make one of the greatest animated films of all time with his first try. Like Ratatouille, The Iron Giant began as someone else’s project. Interested in getting in the animated features game during the ’90s animation renaissance, Warner Bros. optioned Pete Townshend’s musical adaptation of The Iron Man, a 1968 novel for children by poet Ted Hughes. Bird discarded the songs and reworked the story into the tale of a boy named Hogarth living in a 1950s Maine in the grips of Cold War–era nuclear paranoia. Hogarth befriends a giant robot of unknown origin (voiced by Vin Diesel), then protects him from government agents investigating reports of mysterious goings-on.
A beautiful combination of hand-drawn and computer animation created at double speed by an overstretched staff at a studio quickly losing interest in animation, The Iron Giant gave Bird a chance to explore the big questions via a boy and a robot trying to understand the world into which they’d been born (or, in the Iron Giant’s case, dropped). He fills the film with moving scenes about the mystery of death and the nature of the soul and concludes with a boisterous argument for standing up to authority, resisting one’s fate, and avoiding violence. (The film was inspired in part by the death of Bird’s sister, a victim of gun violence, lending extra meaning to the Iron Giant’s “I am not a gun” declaration.) The film debuted to stunning reviews — and virtually no audience. But it’s since been rightly embraced as a classic and, like the Disney films that made Bird want to make movies in the first place, embraced by new generations of fans. In the end, the kid from Montana earned recognition doing it his way. It just took a while for the rest of the world to catch up.