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Brad Bird thinks his rat can rule the box office

Writer-director Bird, 49, should be back in Oscar contention with “Ratatouille,” the tale of gourmet rodent Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who teams with a human kitchen hand to whip up fabulous meals in a French restaurant.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Brad Bird has become one of the “Incredibles” of movie animation as part of the pioneering outfit behind such cartoon hits as “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters, Inc.” and the “Toy Story” flicks.

With 2004’s superhero saga “The Incredibles,” Bird won Pixar Animation’s second Academy Award for feature-length animation, following the company’s Oscar triumph the previous year for “Finding Nemo.”

Writer-director Bird, 49, should be back in Oscar contention with “Ratatouille,” the tale of gourmet rodent Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who teams with a human kitchen hand to whip up fabulous meals in a French restaurant.

Opening June 29, “Ratatouille” also features the voices of Peter O’Toole, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Brad Garrett and Brian Dennehy.

“Ratatouille” could have been the first movie Pixar released with a studio partner other than the Walt Disney Co., whose deal to distribute Pixar films was set to expire after last year’s “Cars.”

Pixar and Disney had broken off talks to extend their deal, but tension between the companies eased after Michael Eisner stepped down as Disney boss.

Under Eisner’s successor, Bob Iger, Disney bought Pixar, continuing one of Hollywood’s most successful animation partnerships. With seven films behind them, the Disney-Pixar brand has yet to produce anything short of a critical and commercial smash.

Bird sat down with The Associated Press after a 12-minute “Ratatouille” preview for theater owners in Las Vegas, discussing the Pixar touch, the movie’s tongue-twisting title and how the company built itself on the precepts of animation pioneer Walt Disney.

AP: The advertising materials for “Ratatouille” cleverly work in its pronunciation (rat-a-TOO-ee). Was the title ever considered too much of a mouthful?

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AP: Pixar has a perfect track record: seven movies, seven hits. Do you get the night sweats worrying that your movie will be the one to tank?

Bird: Sure, all the way through the production, you have night sweats. Especially in the early part, when questions aren’t answered yet. I think if you ask any Broadway veteran, the ones who survive the best are the ones who still get butterflies. If you start getting smug and start thinking, hey, I’ve got this thing licked, then they’re bound to stumble. So I view the feeling of fear as a respect for the audience, because I don’t want to serve up the same old refried meal.

AP: Some critics say there’s an overload of animated movies.

Bird: It’s kind of like saying, “Is there a movie overload?” There’s only a movie overload if they’re bad. If they’re good, it’s just like, “Yeehaw!” The problem with animation is too many people are making the same movie. There’s nothing wrong with the medium. The medium is as big as the sky, but you have to go to different places in the sky. You can’t just go to the same cloud and expect people to get excited about it, with the jabbering sidekicks and the pop references and the hit pop songs. Everybody is kind of emulating that formula, because it’s easier to emulate. People in Hollywood, the press always fixates on technology because it’s easier to quantify. The truth of the matter is the technology has never been the answer. The same answers to making a good movie are the answers that were around 80 years ago. You’ve got to have characters people care about and stories that are both surprising and satisfying.

AP: Was it gratifying for you to have Pixar brought in under the Disney fold for good?

Bird: I don’t think we would have been happy with just any manifestation of Disney. That was always on the table. It was, is Disney going to embrace the things, many of the principles that we had? And I feel that Bob Iger has totally done that. The ironic thing for us is most of the values that are at the core of Pixar’s success are old Disney values. Everybody studies the Old Testament from Walt’s mouth himself, and that has guided us, even though we’ve been doing new technology, and instead of retelling only fairy tales, we tell original stories. But other than that, the rule book is the Disney rule book, which is all about character empathy and the plausible impossible and understanding where characters stand. Technical innovation and all of that, that’s all old Walt stuff. We feel that Iger is very much in that school. He understands the reason the Disney name became so treasured, so we couldn’t be happier. We had always gotten along with so many people at Disney really, really well. It was just some fundamental differences at the top that were causing the friction. With Iger in there now, everybody I think is really looking forward to the future.

AP: What are the odds of a sequel to “The Incredibles”?

Bird: I love the world. I love the characters, and if I could come with a story that was as good or better than the original, I’d go there in a second. I have pieces of things that I would love to see in a sequel, but I haven’t got them all together yet, and I certainly wouldn’t want to come out there with something that is less than the original. ... Sequels are not part of the business plan at Pixar. It’s all about the filmmakers being passionate about going somewhere.