The Price Of Purpose, The Necessity Of Love, The Films of Brad BirdPosted: May 24, 2015
As people we all want to have a defined purpose, a reason to be on this Earth, a life goal to strive towards. Some of us are lucky enough to know exactly what that purpose of ours is, and some of them are lucky enough to actually pursue and maybe even fulfill that purpose. But what does it take to pursue your calling? What does it cost you, what sacrifices must be made? Is your supposed calling something you even want for yourself? And how do your family and friends fit into that ambition, that hunger for meaning and purpose? Brad Bird has explored these questions through his entire filmography, in ways that are both insightful and emotional, exciting and funny. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, and one whose movies have the capability to touch my heart like few others I’ve seen.
The exploration of this theme begins with Bird’s all-time classic The Iron Giant, which is a movie that centers around what’s worth abandoning your calling for. In the finale of the film, the Giant is revealed to actually be a weapon of war, a walking gun brimming with death rays. After being provoked by agent Kent Mansley and the army, the Giant falls back on his original programming and begins to retaliate with tremendous force, much to the horror of his friend Hogarth. But when Mansley goes too far and launches a nuke at the Giant, even though it will lead to the destruction of the whole town and its inhabitants, the Giant has a choice to make: does he continue fighting the army and allow the nuke to fall, or does he make the ultimate sacrifice to save Hogarth and all the other innocents Mansley has endangered? The Giant of course chooses to save everyone (in one of the most touching moments I’ve ever seen in a movie) and ends up being hailed as a hero. But for the Giant to choose life over death, and become a figure of salvation instead of destruction, means a rejection of his programming and design that is motivated entirely by a desire to protect his friends. Here, the message is that love and friendship and life are of utmost importance, and that nothing should supplant that, even if it’s what you were made to do.
Bird built on this focus with his next film, The Incredibles, but through a very different prism. He doubles down on the suggestion that your calling is not as important as the people around you, and that committing to your talent and purpose above all else is not only shortsighted but potentially destructive. Bob’s whole arc in the film begins with him depressed and detached from his family and civilian life because he can’t be a superhero anymore. His inability to live up to his potential hangs over everything else in his life, and once he gets a chance to prove his own superpowered worth again he begins to feel better about himself. But following this path not only almost gets him killed, but his family too, not to mention the whole city they end up having to save. In the end, the family does get a chance to shine as superheroes again, but at that point Bob doesn’t jump into the fight to feel better about himself. He does it because he has to, and most importantly he does it with his family by his side. Bird’s message here is more nuanced, as it’s certainly clear that the Parrs embracing their superhuman sides is a good thing. But what Bob learns is that as important as his calling is to his identity, it should never be something that holds sway over his happiness. That he has his family by his side is the ultimate equalizer, and something he should never take for granted.
While The Incredibles cautions against devaluing your loved ones for the sake of your calling, Ratatouille is about you being devalued by your loved ones for the sake of your calling. For Remy, the issue isn’t really whether to commit to his dream, but how it flies in the face of what is expected of him from either his rat family or his human cohorts in the kitchen. Unlike Hogarth or the Parr family, Remy’s cooking partner Linguini and his father Django both only see Remy for what he can do for them. Django wants to use his son’s talent to check for poison, while Linguini takes advantage of Remy’s abilities to make himself look like a world-class chef. Here, Bird plays off the age-old tropes of an artist not being understood by his family, and how that struggle for acceptance and acknowledgement can be the hardest of all to overcome. But Bird is also aware of the fact that whether people believe in you or not, understand you or not, you can rarely ever truly succeed on your own. As much as Remy wants to be a chef, and as much as he tries, he is unable to succeed until both Linguini and Django respect Remy’s talent as his own and stand beside him.
Surprisingly, these themes continues to present itself even in what is probably Bird’s least-personal film, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. This one doesn’t possess the same level of character or thematic depth that Bird’s other efforts do, but what little there is still fits right in with the rest of his work. We see at the end that Ethan has apparently decided that he cannot afford to step away from the IMF, even after his marriage to Julie in MI3. Ethan seems to feel he is still needed and that there is still work to be done to keep the world safe, and even if that means being separated from his wife it is a sacrifice he feels compelled to make. It’s clear from the quick glimpse we have of Julie, and the look she shares with Ethan, that they still love each other and she doesn’t begrudge the choice he has made. She understands what he has to do and accepts that they’ll have to wait to really spend the time together that they want. Here, Bird depicts what an absolute commitment to your calling is: it might cause you to become estranged from your loved ones, and no matter how noble the cause or how understanding the partner it is tragic. Ghost Protocol also touches on the importance of having trustworthy support in your commitment to your calling, and not just from your family. Ethan can’t succeed against this latest threat until his new team is able to trust each other and work together, which hedges close to what we’ve seen in both The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Ethan might have all of the skills in the world, but without a team to support him and a wife at home to ground him, he would never live up to his ability.
And finally, there’s the recently-released Tomorrowland, and while the film has a slew of problems (mostly in narrative structure, something incredibly uncharacteristic of Bird’s films) it is still mostly held together by the same strong sense of theme as the rest of Bird’s filmography. Here, Bird blows up his themes to the macro level, examining the importance of supporting talent and purpose not just amongst loved ones, but in society overall. In the beginning segments of the film, we see both a young Frank Walker and our protagonist Casey Newton attempting to embrace their callings, only to have them blocked by skeptical and detached “mentors”. And as an adult, Frank is bitter and angry for having been rejected and dismissed yet again, even as society seems to be giving up on the very thing Casey believes is her calling. The story that follows is built around these characters discovering (or rediscovering) their calling through the encouragement of the android girl Athena. In the end, Frank and Casey follow Athena’s example and reach out to other potential talents around the world, hoping to inspire and support them the same way they needed to be. If Bird’s other films were about the importance of having your loved ones with you as you support your calling, Tomorrowland is about how all of society must encourage each other in the same way in order to accomplish real progress.
And if the actions and character arcs of Bird’s heroes don’t adequately demonstrate his themes to you, I would point to his villains as the final piece of the argument. First we have Kent Mansley, a government agent so fearful of the faceless Commie menace that he saw threats in everyone. Next is Syndrome, a very talented manchild who let his obsession with his own superiority drive away the one person in his life (leading to his downfall). After that is Anton Ego, a lonely and cynical critic who judges the artists on principle, not on their art. Following close behind is Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear theorist who has been looking at statistics for so long that he no longer processes the human cost of his actions. And finally there’s David Nix, a brilliant and visionary scientist who hoards his city of geniuses rather than share it with the world, because preserving his experiment is more important than guiding the rabble around him. These villains are people who are just as driven by their calling as any of their opponents… but unlike the heroes, these men never learn the importance of human connection. They see things in impersonal broad strokes, with nothing motivating them beyond their own sense of superiority. While Bird’s heroes are all supported and encouraged and changed by their support systems, his villains are bitter, self-righteous people who don’t have anyone to ground them. This fact is what makes the finale of Ratatouille so amazing, because Remy defeats Ego by evoking that exact emotional grounding that Ego has been missing for so many years. But without that sense of love and connection in their lives, these villains have nothing else but their callings. It’s what makes them dangerous and it’s what makes them lose.
We all have our purpose, and we all have our calling. Brad Bird is quick to celebrate that, and how essential such ambitions can be to our lives. However, he also recognizes that love and support and encouragement from our family and friends and society are just as essential, and that without that love in our corner our ambition is both meaningless and potentially dangerous. Bird’s movies express the tension between these two elements, and capture the beautiful catharsis that comes with finding the right balance between them, and he does this with a level of consistency and ethos in his films that is beyond impressive. The real question now is whether he can keep it going, and with Tomorrowland being an unfortunate narrative misfire, he’s now returning to Pixar for The Incredibles 2. While I’m excited to see him return to the creative environment that birthed some of his best work, I am worried that doing another Incredibles might be a little too safe or repetitive. But I still have faith in Bird, and as long as he keeps his own lessons in mind (and he grounds his talent with the proper dose of humanity) I’m sure we will be seeing plenty more beautiful stories from him in the years to come.