WHEN Brad Bird was brought in to take over "Ratatouille," a new movie about — sacré bleu!
— a rodent in a five-star Parisian restaurant, he immediately took issue with the rats.
They were all wrong. To begin with, they were walking around on two legs. And they had short tails.
"They were trying to deratify
the rats," Bird said of the animators who were working on the Pixar/Disney film before he came on board. "They recognized people were squeamish about rats, but it is inherent in the premise. Rather than trying to dial that down, I was like 'Use that energy and redirect.' I lengthened their tails. And … I had them go back and re-rig all the rats so they could be on four legs."
Audiences will have the final say on rodents in a kitchen when "Ratatouille" opens Friday amid early, favorable reviews as well as questions about how much it will appeal to children. For his part, though, Bird says he's not worried.
The writer-director of the Oscar-winning Pixar/Disney animated film "The Incredibles" says it's wrong to assume "that animation is an art form just for children…. I think [children] are a fraction of our audience. That said, I'm never doing anything to alienate them."
The charming comedy revolves around a rat named Remy who makes his dreams of becoming a gourmet chef come true when he teams up with an orphan boy named Linguini who works at a once-famed restaurant, Gusteau's, that's fallen on bad times.
But let's face it, the fancy, gourmet meals served up in "Ratatouille" aren't exactly recipes that kids can replicate in their Easy-Bake ovens.
"In my mind, the audience is just anybody who likes movies," Bird said. "I would say a lot of people, I think, who make family entertainment, dumb it down for kids, and I am completely opposed to that. "If you present it in an engaging way … it's OK for kids to be a little confused at points and wonder why something is happening. I think too much [family] entertainment is hostile to kids because you assume they are idiots."
Bird inherits "Ratatouille" from Jan Pinkava, who won an Oscar for his 1997 Pixar short, "Geri's Game," and had begun developing the film in 2000.
"I was aware of the film's development and participated in a limited way as part of the story trust group that goes over all the films," Bird says. "We offer fresh eyes to each other's projects." But he didn't take the reins from Pinkava, who still has story credit on the film, until about 18 months ago. (Bird said Pixar's John Lasseter and Steve Jobs asked him to take a look at the project and "analyze why this very beautiful car was not running.")
"I committed to keeping the animation start date," Bird said, "which is like the start date of principal photography, to hold to the original [opening] date. It was like Vulcan chess when you are, like, on four or five different levels. It was scary and exhilarating."
The basic plot line and the cast of characters are the same as in Pinkava's versions. But Bird made some major changes.
"Gusteau [the chef] was alive in the previous version, but I killed him off and made him part of Remy's imagination," he says.
He also took Collette, a self-disciplined young cook in Gusteau's who falls for Linguini, from a minor character to a major player.
"I wrote a whole new script and then we blasted it into production," he says.
"Ratatouille" marks Bird's first "talking critter movie." But he's no stranger to animating animals, having trained at Disney: "The whole Disney thing is: If you are dealing with an animal movie, know something about the animals.
"All the guys who trained me are of that camp, so if you are doing a dog movie, study those type of dogs, then use it not as something to rigidly adhere to, but as something that informs your creative choices."
Bird encouraged his animators to study rat behavior and how they use their noses and their tendency to fold their arms onto their chest.
"Because our lead character is a rat who wants to move into the human world, let's show him make that choice to be on two legs and let's make him being on two legs something he has to hide from his dad and let's show it as something that changes over the course of the film. I am happy we made that choice because it is something I could use as a director."
Bird says that Remy and his rat family have a lot in common with the lead character in another Disney animated film, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
"Everybody cringes when they first see the Hunchback," says Bird. "But when you get beyond the surface you start to feel things for the character, and that becomes a deeper film."