With the release of Pixar’s animated The Incredibles, writer-director Brad Bird is now standing atop a gargantuan artistic achievement: without a doubt he most visually complex and ambitious computer animated film ever made. So it’s a bit of wonder that the one question he keeps getting asked from interviewers and radio commentators is, “Would you mind doing Edna?”
In “The Incredibles”, a film about a family of superheroes trying to blend in with suburban life after being forced into the Superhero Protection Program–a result of nuisance lawsuits aimed at the wall-crashing, whiplash-causing crimefighter “industry”—Mr.Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) seeks the counsel of one-time superhero fashion designer Edna “E” Mode, a cranky, hyperactive gnome of a person, hilariously voiced . . . by Brad Bird.
Just this morning, during an interview on a San Francisco radio station, the gushing news anchor all but begged Bird to “do Edna.”
He did, delivering 30-seconds of high energy Edna-isms punctuated by the character’s annoyed repetitions of the phrase, “What! What? What!”
“It’s happening a lot,” grins Tiburon-resident Bird, later in the morning, as he crams another interview in while catching a late breakfast. He admits that he almost chose to not let anyone know he’s the one who gave voice to weird, brilliant Edna. “There was a time,” he says, “where I was seriously wanting to give a fake name to an actress and creating a fake biography for her, complete with a fake photo, just so I could avoid being asked to do Edna all the time. But then it got out on the Internet that I was Edna’s voice, so it was all over before I could do anything.”
He’s not really complaining. He’s really very good at doing Edna, and it says something that in a movie filled with characters like the super-stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), the force-field throwing, invisibility-powered Goth teen Violet (Sarah Vowell), and the ice-making hepcat Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), it’s the quirky little woman who designs their costumes that media people want to have performed for them. Besides, it’s become something of a Pixar tradition to have directors and animators contribute their voices to small movie characters.
Bob Peterson, one of Pixar’s top story writers, provided the voice of slug-like dispatcher Roz in Monsters, Inc., and also the voice of Mister Ray in Finding Nemo. Joe Rampf, another “story guy,” did Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bug’s Life. There are several Pixar people in “The Incredibles”, including animator Brett Parker, playing Kari the babysitter, and Bud Lucky—the man who designed “Toy Story”’s Woody, and also directed the new Pixar short Boundin’—does the voice of Rick Dicker, the dour government guy responsible for keeping the Incredibles’ suburban identities secret.
“There are quite a few Pixarians represented in the movie,” Bird allows. “So it’s nice to be part of that tradition. And I guess I have to admit that Edna is pretty fun to do.”
Bird, no doubt, is secretly happy that anyone is paying attention at all. His last experience as writer-director of an animated film was not greeted with the same level of interest. In fact, with that film, The Iron Giant, he could have done every voice in the thing and no one would have blinked an eye. Ironically, “The Iron Giant”, Bird’s hand-drawn beauty of an animated film—produced by Warner Bros.—is now a certified cult sensation, legendary (among those few people who’ve seen it) for it’s rich visuals, emotionality, and simplicity. “The Iron Giant”, sadly, is also legendary for having been almost completely ignored by the movie-going public when it was first released in 1999. Created with a budget of $50,000,000 dollars, the film has to date made less than half that.
“It’s a strange thing to be legendary for,” laughs Bird. “The Legendarilly unknown ‘Iron Giant’!” In the official press packet for “The Incredibles”, when “The Iron Giant” is mentioned, it’s described as “the critically acclaimed but seldom seen ‘Iron Giant’.” That, it seems, has become the film’s tagline. “I’m hoping that tagline will gradually change,” says Bird. “It’s seen by more and more people every year. We’ve had fantastic luck, all of us who worked on ‘The Iron Giant’, in that if somebody sees it, they tend to recommend it to other people. They actually take it on as something of a mission to spread the word about the ‘Iron Giant’. I find that really touching. People see and tell their friends, ‘You must see the Iron Giant,’ and the friend goes, ‘Uh, no, no, it’s a kids’ movie,’ and the ‘Iron Giant’ fan goes, ‘No! It’s more than a kids’ film! You must see it!’ So I feel very lucky, and people do seem to be catching up to it. They’ll have another chance on November 19, when Warner Bros. plans to release a special edition of the Iron Giant on DVD. Says Bird, “I think Warner Bros. will end up doing just fine with it.”
The theme of unrecognized superheroes, which adds a lot of the emotional heft to “The Incredibles”, may come in part from Bird’s experience as the creator of a film he knew was good, but was essentially invisible, like his vanishing Goth-girl Violet. If this is true, Bird’s not admitting to it, choosing instead to point, as inspirations for the film, to all the other invisible heroes who populate the world.
“A lot of people are heroes, in their own way, and a lot of heroes go unrecognized,” he says. Among the planet Earth’s many unsung heroes, he says, are teachers, parents—and animators.
“There are so many animators I admire, who have helped and encouraged me, who have created amazing pieces of art, and yet no one knows their names,” Bird says. “A lot of my heroes are artists, because the goal of any great heroic artist is to create something that is timeless. I think that once you get work above a certain quality level, discussion becomes kind of superfluous. Once you’re in the realm that Mozart hit, you just go, ‘What can you say? It’s Mozart.’ I feel the same way about Van Gogh, and the Beatles, or Gershwin, or Duke Ellington or Miles Davis in the 50s, and Frank Sinatra when he got his heart broken. It’s a level of excellence that is beyond discussion. All of those people are heroes to me, and the list is endless.”
Whether Bird ends up a hero to Pixar—and to Walt Disney, which is distributing, and marketing the hell out of, “The Incredibles”—remains to be seen. For all its technical genius, storytelling inventiveness, and visual opulence, it’s not the kind of film one expects from Pixar. For one thing, it’s PG, the result of a story which includes armed guards with machine guns and scary flying machines that slice through the air, and through people. Bird admits it’s intimidating to be the one carrying the immaculate Pixar reputation for this next lap of the box-office race.
“There is a lot of pressure coming into Pixar,” he says, “because this studio has an unparalleled string of hits, and it’s like being the next better up after five home runs. If you think about that stuff, you’ll just curl up into a fetal ball and you’ll never do anything. I just had to shake all of that off and say, ‘This is a wonderful studio, and I’m lucky to be here.’ My goal was to make the movie I saw in my mind,
“And I’ve done that.”
Even with that understood, isn’t anyone at Pixar worried that so radical a departure from the Pixar mold could turn off a lot of people who’ve come to trust and depend on Pixar to create a particular flavor of family entertainment—namely, one without machine guns and people being chewed alive by jet engine propeller blades?
“Pixar does not assume that every film they make will be a big hit,” Bird insists. “They have been, and that’s great, but we know they can’t all be hits. The goal is to be able to try new things. None of the folks at Pixar want to be in a position where they feel they have to make something they don’t believe in. They make films they want to see. I think that’s very enlightened, and in the movie business, it’s also very rare.”