On the eve of the release of "Ratatouille," Brad Bird knew he was going to need some help winning over the moviegoing public.
"Look, it's a film about rats and it's about cooking and it's about France," the director and screenwriter of the Disney Pixar hit said. "This was not exactly high-concept stuff. People didn't really know what it was when it came out. How do you tell people what this film is about in one sentence?"
Bird had been in this position before -- he also wrote and directed "The Iron Giant," the 1999 Warner Bros. Animation film that is now regarded as a masterpiece but was largely overlooked when it was released.
"That movie," Bird said with a groan, "just had people scratching their heads -- it's not Disney, it's got no songs, it's based in the 1950s, there's the Cold War, the robot made some people think it was Japanese. . . . "
This time around, Bird had more on his side; there was the Oscar he picked up for "The Incredibles" and the staggering track record of Pixar, which seems at this point incapable of releasing a film that does not gross $150 million domestically. Audiences did give "Rat" (as Bird refers to the film) a chance and they not only embraced it, they became apostles for the movie.
"People who see it tend to recommend it to other people and they go out of their way to encourage people to see it," Bird said with a measure of pride.
"The week-to-week attrition is very low for how wide of a release it was, it's really held steady in an amazing way. If you watch two minutes of the film, you're in. But we had to get people to sit down for those first two minutes."
The film has grossed $206 million in the U.S. alone and earned stellar reviews. For instance, at rottentomatoes.com, which compiles reviews far and wide, the movie scored a potent 97% rating, a percentage topped only by relatively small-budget, art-house films. For Bird, there's a very good chance he will soon be hefting another Oscar from the animated film category.
Bird is proud that his films are widening the expectations of animation in the minds of average moviegoers. For the die-hard fans of the medium, he's hailed as a heroic figure. (Although he doesn't want to be pigeonholed; he's now working on a live-action film, "1906.")
He appreciates the moment in time but he does wish that animation earned a slightly different form of respect than it's currently enjoying. Too often, he said, animation is viewed "as a craft, not an art" and that the directors and writers making the features find their work devalued.
"There are a series of creative decisions that are just as challenging as live-action. We are trying to capture lightning in a bottle, too, but we have to do one volt at a time and somehow people consider that less worthy," Bird said. "They think it's some sort of shallow surface trick."
Bird talked of the decisions about character and storytelling, and said that "just as Daniel Day-Lewis makes a thousand little decisions" about movement, posture, affectation, voice and inflection, so do animation filmmakers.
In "Rat," that created characters that pulled audiences into a heartwarming and loopy story of overcoming stereotypes and finding a meaningful path in life. The voice performances in the film by actors such as Peter O'Toole, Ian Holm and Janeane Garofalo brought the tale to life, and Bird said judging his "Rat" only by the visual quality of the artwork would be akin to judging a novelist by typing skills.
"I wish also that actors saw animators as brethren and not as some unfair and unworthy form of competition," Bird said. "People think there's some magic button to making these types of movies. There isn't. It would make my job a lot easier."