Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Ratatouille: Food for Thought
(July 20, 2007)

Now that Brad Bird has directed three feature films, certain themes are becoming apparent. The first is that society persecutes the talented. Perhaps the Iron Giant shouldn't be thought of as talented so much as alien, but certainly The Incredibles and Remy are talented and all three films feature persecution.

The characters struggle to overcome the persecution, but not because of the persecution itself but because the persecution stands in the way of them exercising their talents. Bird appears to feel that talent should rise to the top and that others should willingly defer to talent. This is where the charge of elitism, and even fascism, are leveled at Bird. What he never shows is how talent has to be developed and refined. The Iron Giant is built with all his capabilities. The Incredibles are presumably born with super powers. Remy is born with a genius nose.

Contrast this with Joe Johnston's film October Sky, based on Homer Hickam's book Rocket Boys. It's about a group of boys in a mining town who are inspired by Sputnik to take up rocketry. The standard path in the town is for boys to graduate high school and enter the mines, so the boys stand out for wanting something different from the social norm. While the town attempts to discourage their efforts, especially when it appears that one of their rockets caused a fire, the film also deals with the boys struggling to figure out rocketry and documents their early failures. As talented as these boys might be, it takes effort to develop their talents.

As an artist, Bird has to know this. There's no way that his first work was as good as what he's doing now. For whatever reason, though, the maturation of talent doesn't interest him. The abilities of the Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Remy are fully formed.

For Bird, ambition is not for personal glory, it's simply to reach a position where talent can be exercised. This is an interesting contrast to John Lasseter's characters in Toy Story and Cars. In those films, Woody and Lightning McQueen attempt to lead out of ego and only discover happiness when they forsake ambition. Both directors deal with ambition, but it signifies completely different types of characters.

In Lasseter's world, ambition always pits a character against a rival. Success can only come by overcoming a competitor. For Bird, the talented are either all in agreement (like the supers in The Incredibles), or unique like Remy or the Iron Giant. What would happen in Bird's world if two equally talented protagonists attempted to express their talents towards competing ends?

By avoiding the struggle to develop a character's talents or having a character compete against equally talented opponents, Bird slants his films heavily towards his chosen characters. In much the way the Disney princesses are fated to ascend to their rightful places, Bird's characters also triumph. While the princesses live in fantasy worlds, Bird's live in ours, but his films are just as much fairy tales as the Disney films. Bird's characters don't compromise and aren't diminished by a hostile environment. Their talents are fully exercised and they accomplish everything they're capable of. And if that isn't a fantasy, I don't know what is.