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His life began at 40

Brad Bird wasn't really a late bloomer; it just took others a while to catch on.

February 17, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

REMY, c'est moi?

It's hard not to think that when meeting Brad Bird, "Ratatouille's" writer-director. He thoroughly identifies with his rat protagonist Remy, who yearns to be a chef in the heretofore unwelcoming kitchen of the legendary French restaurant Gusteau. Remy, an unsung artist with a sensational sense of smell, is a misfit in his tribe of rats. Before a gun-wielding grandma dislodged his rat community from its bucolic perch in the French countryside, Remy's father had consigned him to a life of sniffing out poison.

Bird was one of Hollywood's unsung talents until his 40s, a guy who impressed the likes of Pixar kingpin John Lasseter, Steven Spielberg and Simpsons creator Matt Groenig, but still toiled in relative anonymity.

His relative under-appreciation goes all the way back to his childhood in Oregon, when he'd trot home from school every day and spend hours holed up drawing. At 3, he drew Boinky -- a boxy rabbit -- in sequential pictures. At 11, he began drawing animation in earnest, and at 14, he completed his first film, a topsy-turvy version of "The Tortoise and the Hare," in which the slow and steady tortoise is the villain trying to subvert the speedy hare.

Nonetheless, his junior high guidance counselor tried to talk him out of a life in the movies. He asked Bird over and over again, "What do you want to do with your life?"

"I said, 'I want to make movies,' " recalls Bird. "We had a half-hour discussion where he kept trying to get me to say what else I would be interested in doing. He'd say, 'If movies didn't exist, what would you do?' And I'd say, 'I'd have to invent them.' "

Bird tells the story the way a veteran animator would: with all the appropriate voices. He's stern as the evil counselor, guileless as his teenage self. He returns to his present self for the moral: "That, in a nutshell, is the message sent to a lot of people who want to have a career in the arts. It's considered impractical, a far-fetched thing. To have a goal, something that excites you, that everybody else thinks is crazy -- I relate to that."

Bird is sitting in a hotel lounge in Westwood a couple of hours before "Ratatouille" sweeps the Annies, animation's top award. He looks like a Little Rascal gone middle-aged, with reddish hair, freckles and an impish grin -- along with the thickening midriff of a soccer dad. His youthful chutzpah has matured into a zesty confidence. And why not? In 2005, Bird won a best animated feature Oscar for "The Incredibles," for which he was also nominated in the screenplay category, and this year, he's received the same nominations for "Ratatouille."

While Hollywood mints "star" directors from every video helmer who churns out a hit, animation, the billion-dollar war horse, remains largely a starless fiefdom, where the public barely knows who's responsible for such cultural icons as Shrek or Nemo.

One exception is Pixar's creative kingpin John Lasseter, who also directed "Toy Story" and "Cars." The other is Bird, the business' fast-rising auteur -- who's somehow managed to imprint his distinctly personal stamp on the CG world through the dazzlingly precise and cinematic verve of his animation as well as his idiosyncratic sense of humor and unusual ability to imbue mere drawings with vibrant personalities.

Bird writes his own material, and the voices in "Ratatouille" are enhancements, not crutches. Furthermore, the story is largely told from the perspective of a small rat -- it's as if a camera is attached to Remy's collar as he scampers through Gusteau's kitchen, perennially threatened by flying knives, simmering saucepans and maniacal chefs. As Remy is seduced by the kitchen, the palette of Gusteau's kingdom becomes softer, inviting, irresistible.

And Bird is fast. There are sequences in his films that literally move faster than almost any other studio-scale animation. He's also fast in another way. Despite his deep identification with Remy, "Ratatouille" was not in fact Bird's idea, but that of co-director Jan Pinkava, who had been working on "Ratatouille" since at least 2000.

When the movie stalled, Bird was asked to take it over -- and was able to completely retool the script and finish the project within a year and a half, not the four years it usually takes to make an animated film.

For Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, which bought Pixar in 2006, Bird was like the Lone Ranger riding in. "Brad Bird is singularly one of the finest and rarest filmmakers working today," Cook says. "This guy writes, he directs, he does everything. He's incredibly smart and it shows up in all of his work."

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