Brad Bird has been one of Disney’s best regarded directors of family-friendly films for more than a decade. His Pixar efforts The Incredibles and Ratatouille were critically acclaimed hits, and while his new live-action epic Tomorrowland has underperformed at the box office, it’s that rare blockbuster aimed at a PG-rated audience. Yet the artist he most consistently draws comparison to is one less associated with epicurean, anthropomorphized rats and more with the muscular endorsement of selfishness and unfettered ambition. In short, Internet theorists believe Bird’s oeuvre is a thinly veiled homage to Ayn Rand.
Critics have long made the connection between Bird and objectivism—the philosophy of rational self-interest espoused by Rand—because of the messages of individuality in his animated films. Then Tomorrowland came out and made it even easier to make the connection. The George Clooney-starring action adventure is overstuffed with plot, backstory, and visual flights of fancy, but its underlying story feels superficially similar to Rand's masterpiece Atlas Shrugged, beloved by many American conservatives and libertarians.
In Tomorrowland, the world's most innovative thinkers, artists, and scientists discover another dimension where they can build a utopia free of society's ills; eventually, convinced that humanity's downfall was imminent, they retreat there permanently, turning it into a veritable Galt's Gulch—a secluded community of anti-government capitalists in Atlas Shrugged. Bird has repeatedly denied that there's any political dimension to his work, and there's no reason not to believe him—but it's also clear that his favorite subject matter is the raging passion of a creative genius being constrained. And that's where things get tricky.
This argument that Bird might hold Randian beliefs first emerged after the release of his second feature film, 2004's The Incredibles, a delightful Pixar romp about a family of superheroes who’ve been forced to suppress their identities by a government angry with their city-smashing derring-do. The patriarch, Mr. Incredible, grumbles that his son Dash, blessed with super-speed, has to cover up his abilities at school to avoid standing out; the villain of the film is a disgruntled inventor who resents superheroes for their natural gifts. The film's message seems pretty simple: embrace what's special about yourself (which, after all, is the message of almost every Disney film). But some saw it as a libertarian paean to the super-family, blessed with inherent gifts that should not be contained.
The reality is somewhere in the middle: Mr. Incredible complains about the meaningless celebration of mediocrity that happens at his son's school, where he's thrown a graduation ceremony for completing the second grade. Ayn Rand might agree, but so would most suburban dads in any hacky sitcom ranting about getting a trophy for participation—perhaps there's a little objectivism in every parent when it comes to their children. Mr. Incredible is stuck in a dull office job longing to return to his glory days. But that's just a standard-issue mid-life crisis, imagery Bird knowingly plays on—Mr. Incredible buys a sports car, starts lying about going on business trips, etc.
Mr. Incredible's story is one of creativity stifled, and it's a thread that crops up in a lot of Bird's films. In Ratatouille, Remy the rat is born with a sophisticated palette, and all he wants to do is cook gourmet food—but he’s held back by being a member of his species, which isn’t typically allowed anywhere near a gourmet kitchen. In Tomorrowland, Frank Walker (George Clooney) is invited to live among the world's smartest people, but is eventually exiled because he wants to share their discoveries with the rest of humanity.
In each film, there's an indelible recurring image: the frustrated genius, locked away in a dusty closet, obsessing over the talents he has to hide. For Mr. Incredible, it's his costumes and trophies; for Remy, his pots and pans, and for Frank, it's a ramshackle house stuffed to the gills with gadgets and gizmos, the most frightening of them all being some sort of doomsday machine that predicts the world's end will arrive in less than 60 days. Frank's machine is purportedly what kept Tomorrowland's villains (represented by a dour administrator played by Hugh Laurie) from interacting with the rest of Earth, so convinced they were of its impending end. But eventually it's discovered that prediction has kept everyone in a pessimistic feedback loop—and only optimism, the creative thirst for the new and the different, can truly save the world.
If it sounds like Tomorrowland's ultimate moral is delivered a little forcefully—it is. That’s likely another reason Bird is continually tagged as a political firebrand. He’s a master of weaving his characters' emotional journeys with staggering visuals, but his films are largely made for younger audiences, and their messages are delivered with little subtlety. In Tomorrowland, Laurie’s character decries Hollywood's obsession with dystopian storytelling. In Ratatouille, Remy is ultimately vindicated by a rave review from a usually grim critic: "Not everyone can be a great artist … But a great artist can come from anywhere."
Bird's career trajectory plainly reflects that sentiment. Raised in Montana, he toured Walt Disney World at the age of 11 and proclaimed that he wanted to be an animator, returning two years later with his first completed work, which was enough to spur one of the company's legendary animators, Milt Kahl, to mentor him from a young age. He came up as a feature animator during the medium's greatest decline in the 1980s, where a string of flops prompted Disney to scale back the resources of its animation department. After spending years in television (mostly working on the early seasons of The Simpsons), Bird directed one of the greatest animated features ever made, 1999's The Iron Giant, another financial flop that Bird largely blamed on mishandled publicity from Warner Bros. Animation, which stopped making feature-length films shortly after.
It was only when Bird was brought into the Pixar fold that he experienced real box-office success, and (coincidentally or not) he will return to that territory after Tomorrowland's box-office underperformance to make The Incredibles 2, a surefire hit. But while The Incredibles had the advantage of Pixar's impeccable brand and an advertising-friendly story of family superheroes, Bird's creative instincts flow through every frame. The film's DVD release features a long documentary that details his demanding, often punishing, but highly successful creative approach. At one point in the documentary, a member of the crew sings a song about the "800-pound gorilla" bearing down on them all (Bird). In many other scenes, the director rants about the perceived second-class status of animated films, often treated with kid gloves by critics who refuse to acknowledge them as cinema.
As a director, Bird might have his quirks, but his works are less eccentric. Frank Walker and the heroes of Tomorrowland are seeking not to rule the world, as an objectivist might, but merely to have their voices heard as loudly as possible. When Bird won his second Academy Award (for Ratatouille as Best Animated Feature) his charming but impassioned speech said it all.
I also want to thank my junior high guidance counselor for a meeting we had where he asked me, “What do you want to do with your life?” And I said, “I want to make movies.” And he said, “What else do you want to do with your life?” And I said, “Make movies.” And he said, “What if you couldn't make movies?” And I said, “I'd have to find a way that I could.” “What if movies didn't exist?” “I'd have to invent them.”