Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Editorial: Brad Bird's Lost Animated Wowser...

Recently, a real diamond has been unearthed...

Brad Bird put together this sort of mock-trailer for an animated adaptation of Will Eisner's classic comic The Spirit that he was supposed to helm in the early 1980s, a trailer composed of very impressive pencil tests...

I'm guessing this was done sometime around 1981 or 1982, though the project itself dates back to 1980. Producer Gary Kurtz himself was even involved in trying to get it off the ground. Bird had worked on The Fox and the Hound at Disney in 1980, but had left the studio sometime that year or in 1981, due to the conservative management that was stagnating Walt Disney Productions' once-roaring animation house and upsetting the young animators who were newly recruited at the time.

Much has been written about how frustrated many of the then-young animators were at Disney back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The likes of Bird, John Lasseter, Tim Burton, and several others. The Fox and the Hound for them was a diet version of classic animal-starring Disney films like Bambi and Lady and the Tramp. The Black Cauldron didn't seem like it was going to be much better, as development issues and behind-the-scenes drama seriously hurt the film's story. Bird was only around for The Fox and the Hound, he was notably edgy and ambitious, and he didn't last long at the studio because of it. His ambition can certainly be seen in these mere pencil tests.

Bird has shown throughout his entire career that he's certainly very close to being a modern-day Walt Disney, if he isn't. Some say it might be John Lasseter, or Hayao Miyazaki, I think he's a very likely candidate. All four of his films - The Iron GiantThe Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - are masterpieces. He's a master storyteller, an amazing director, someone who injects his stories with a real sense of wonder, and a real advocate of animation. He advocates for animation much more than others, he's not afraid to be vocal.

Just watch the DVD or Blu-ray commentary for The Incredibles and go to the scene where Bob Parr and Lucius Best are talking in the car before heading out to rescue people from the burning building.

What I love about Bird's three animated films is that they are family films that happen to be a little more adult-oriented than most modern animated features. The Iron Giant, for me, is superior to the Disney Renaissance films. All of them. Even the beloved likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The film doesn't pander, it's very heartfelt, it's very creative, it feels like it's his film and not the work of a committee. You look at many of the 90s Disney films and you feel the executive-created stuff clashing with the creative teams' better ideas. (Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, anyone?) Not to mention the animation and art direction is damn good for a non-Disney animated film from the era!

Unfortunately, WB dropped the ball and dumped the film in the summer of 1999 with a marketing campaign that'll always be ripped apart in pretty much any article or essay on the film. Bird then went straight to Pixar with his superhero story that he had been kicking around as far back as the early 1990s. Pixar was making major advancements in computer animation, but they were telling stories that were much like the ambitious tales Walt gave audiences back in the 1930s and 1940s. No executives telling them what to do or forcing them to make the films pander.

The Incredibles came out when Pixar was finally venturing out of the lighthearted comedy box. That's not to say that their first four films aren't groundbreaking and magnificent, but something like Finding Nemo definitely showed a darker side of the Emeryville studio: A film that opens with a death, has lots of moments that are intense for a lot of tots, and it also deals with loss, grief, fear, and many other things. The Incredibles would push that further, as it became the first Pixar film to garner a PG rating... It's one of the few animated films released in the last 15 years that actually deserves that rating!

Bird pulled no punches. He made a family film, but one that wasn't worried about how some random 5-year-old out of a million might react to a rougher moment. But the edginess can only do so much in the long run, the film really succeeded because it had everything: A perfect story, inspired casting, a wonderfully intoxicating late 50s space age aesthetic, a compelling setting, superheroes, a positively sexy score by Michael Giacchino, perfect pacing, exhilarating action, laugh-out-loud comedy, a strong, subtle, satirical message: Everything you could want from an animated film. On a personal note, The Incredibles had an enormous influence on my own projects and stories...

He worked the same magic into Ratatouille, a film that wasn't even his from the start. Ratatouille is so different from The Incredibles, yet it's just as brilliant. It's one of Pixar's quirkiest films, and definitely has the feel of a small-scale, more adult comedy that happens to be suitable for kids. It's not the usual modern animated film fare, and it's bolstered by a great story, great wit, Michael Giacchino's score, thrilling moments, lots of heart and drama, again... The whole shebang!

Then there's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol... He took a fourth entry in a franchise that has mixed-to-good results, and made one of the best blockbuster live-action films out of it. From the set-pieces to the well-timed humor to the unexpected emotional bits, Ghost Protocol completely blew me away when I had seen and it still holds up. It's a triumphant action film!

Tomorrowland looks to be just as great as his previous works, going back to 1950s sci-fi aesthetics and bringing a sense of wonder that a lot of modern big blockbusters lack. It looks creative and intriguing, though the marketing isn't really making it seem that way to non-fans. Since he hasn't done an animated feature since 2007, the world of American feature animation has felt kind of hollow since. I really hope he ends up directing The Incredibles 2, even though he's still writing it. He has had other projects in the works too, like 1906 and Ray Gunn. Will they see the light of day? Given that he's so beloved and so big, maybe. I mean, the film community wants him to direct one of the future Star Wars films. He's hailed as one of the best, and for a good reason...

Anyways, this brief taste of what his Spirit film was going to be like shows his usual brilliance. It looks like it would be an Incredibles or Iron Giant for the 1980s, thus it looks like the animated movie that the early-to-mid 1980s desperately needed. It would probably be a country mile ahead of the uneven and ultimately safe The Fox and the Hound, the messy Black Cauldron, the juvenile "adult" animated features of the early 80s like Heavy Metal, and Don Bluth's gorgeous if not decent The Secret of NIMH. This is more in line with The Plague Dogs and Twice Upon a Time, films that actually took some big risks and were different, but those films didn't get any rewards in the end.

The early 80s was a time of edgier, darker family films. The G-rating was seen as a "kiddie-kiddie" rating, so many family films from the era had some bite and carried the coveted PG... This was before the PG-13 was even invented, and some films - mainly The Temple of Doom and Gremlins - lead to the creation of the divisive rating that dominates to this day. This came off of the success of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and soon we saw films like The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, and several others. An Incredibles-esque Spirit film would've fit in perfectly with those films, and it would've rocked animation out of its doldrums.

It would've been amazing to see it come to life back then, maybe in say 1983 or 1984. Brad Bird directs, folks like Lasseter and other Cal-Arts geniuses are animators on it, Gary Kurtz produces, it gets released by a big distributor, and it's a big hit. Everyone wakes up and sees the real potential in animation. Imagine how different animation would've been had that all happened... It's akin to theorizing what animation would be like had Walt Disney's Fantasia struck gold at the box office back in the early 1940s.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, animation was aggressively shoved into the kiddie corner in North America. Hours and hours of mindless Saturday morning toy commercials disguised as TV shows kept pushing the belief that animation was a medium fit only for children. Censorship standards at the time were also harsh on the kid-oriented TV shows. The boomers who grew up with Disney animated features and 60s/70s Saturday morning cartoons rejected animation after becoming preteens, it didn't help that Disney released a new, G-rated animated film every four years, and The Rescuers was the only one that came close to the Walt films out of those releases... And it was still rather tame! The time was right for Disney to make an early 80s animated "family film", a good one. But Disney's management at the time was not willing to do that. They were still stuck in the 1950s, the Hays Code days. They thought they knew what Walt wanted...

They experimented with the PG rating for live-action films, all of which did not go over well, which led to the creation of Touchstone... Then the PG-13 rating was created the year that banner was established. Disney missed the opportunity to do a true early 80s PG family film, either animated or live-action. Basically their answer to Star WarsTRON has stood the test of time, thankfully, but back then it was not the hit they were hoping for. The Black Cauldron stalled and stalled, and behind-the-scenes drama and tension killed it in the end. That could've been the very film to push them forward. Sadly, it was pretty tame in 1985, and it would've been tame in 1982.

Thankfully, animation excelled after the surprise success of Don Bluth's An American Tail in 1986 which lead Disney's executives to seriously rethink feature animation, as they were seemingly letting go of it. Disney got back into the game with box office hits like Oliver & Company, the excellent and ambitious Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released under the Touchstone banner, and later... Critically acclaimed box office hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and so on and so forth. Animation was capturing the imaginations of adults and kids alike, all of the general public... But what was succeeding were milder versions of the kind of films Walt and the crew made during the Golden Age. Something like The Lion King would've been kind of risky in 1955, in 1994 it was really nothing new in terms of content. Not in the day and age of PG, PG-13 and R ratings. Fortunately, it - like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin - just happened to be a very good film that hit all the right beats, like a good Disney film does.

That's all that matters in the end, but... Experimentation is definitely needed for this limitless medium.

We didn't see too many Who Framed Roger Rabbit-type films afterwards, save for some off-the-wall experiments like The Nightmare Before Christmas. The G-rated (now PG, considering what that rating has become nowadays) family-friendly film was here to stay, but Disney kept some of the bite that made Walt's films so excellent, and told good stories, thus adults paid to see them in theaters. These features were certainly not the harmless fare that The Aristocats and Robin Hood were, but they certainly weren't like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Incredibles, to say nothing of Walt's early films. Few films push the PG rating nowadays, such as Rango and ParaNorman. There's a shortage of those kinds of animated films, if you ask me.

I'm not saying "edgy" means better, but animation in the states I feel is kind of stuck. I have nothing against the family film formula, but you can certainly make a family film that doesn't feel the need to make sure most five years old won't leave the theater traumatized. There are lots of great animated family films made today, I just feel that some should take a page from Brad Bird and those who think like him...

Here's what Bird himself said about the project in 2005...

"It was cinematic. I loved the angles, the use of shadow, and the fact that its characters were expressive; they didn’t have the rigid facial expressions normally associated with superhero comics. It was kind of cartoony, especially in the years 1946, ’47, ’48. Eisner also had all the draftsmanship chops. They were like short stories; often the Spirit only came in at the beginning or the end. I liked that; I felt like it was weird and unpredictable and interesting. So I got all the reprints of The Spirit I could lay my hands on."

"I blew a lot of energy and time on it, and I kind of think in my mind it should always be a hand-drawn thing, and right now, Hollywood idiocy being what it is, that’s considered the kiss of death. I don’t think you could get any money for a big animated feature if you insisted on it being hand-drawn. For whatever reasons, people perceive CG as being the magic thing that will turn any bad idea good. Maybe five years from now they’ll realize that any medium is fine if the characters draw you in and the story is well told."

Ten years later, executives still avoid hand-drawn animation like it's the plague. Or so we may think, some animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios tell us that a hand-drawn film will happen if a director's project happens to be perfect for hand-drawn and said director ultimately wants to do it in hand-drawn. Executives tend to go by numbers and assumptions, while others say it's the pipeline and that it can't sustain hand-drawn productions. However, Bird is more than right...

The Spirit was adapted into a live-action film directed by Frank Miller in 2008 as lot of people know, but it was a critical and commercial bomb. Who remembers it? The time is right to bring the story back, and Bird should definitely be allowed to realize his vision of this character. Of course, Hollywood probably won't let him anytime soon, but it would be super cool if he got the chance to make a feature based on the series one day... The very one he envisioned some 35 years ago...


  1. Some of the DVDizzy users are saying that they're lying about hand drawn animation coming back because they can't admitted that the executives are nothing but a bunch of greedy anti-hand drawn animation jerks.

  2. It's not that Iger & co are "anti"-hand drawn animation. They are unfortunately blinded by what they think is right. They think through dollar signs, and assume that because of how TPATF did and several other post-2000 hand-drawn animated films, that the medium is no longer viable. That of course, needs to be proven wrong with a new set of 2D films... And Disney might not be able to do that for the time being.