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'Tomorrowland' director Brad Bird keeps looking for the bright side

Director Brad Bird has brought his optimistic outlook to Disney's highly original, weird 'Tomorrowland'

At the beginning of "Tomorrowland" — the new futurist extravaganza from Brad Bird and the only film in the known universe to feature a bathtub that becomes a rocket ship — a young boy travels to the 1964 World's Fair in New York. He has ginned up a jet pack in his garage and, despite its bugs, is eager to show it off at a contest.

When the stern-lipped man running the event tells him there's no point to trying it if it doesn't work, the boy replies, "Can't it just be fun?"

The line sets up the character's philosophy, but it also could double as a directorial mission statement. Bird, director of the animated hits "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles," has built a career on that principle. Though he didn't direct his first feature ("The Iron Giant") until he was on the other side of 40, Bird, now 57, has adopted a kind of jet pack approach to filmmaking, assembling complex, forward-thinking machinery and sending it gleefully aloft.

Directors in today's blockbuster world are often salvage specialists. They take the shell of a long-established property and attach enough new pieces to keep the non-fanboy (or themselves) interested.

Bird has toiled in a different shop. He made one of the era's few superhero movies with entirely new superheroes, and subverted animation's cute factor by making his protagonist a multi-dimensional rat. After stepping into the rebuilt-vehicle tradition four years ago with "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," his live-action debut, Bird has now directed his follow-up — starring George Clooney, conceived and co-written by "Lost" veteran Damon Lindelof and featuring a load of actual and ideological doodads.

In a summer moviegoing season rife with brands, "Tomorrowland" and its original story arrive in theaters May 22 bearing high expectations. Though putatively based on a theme-park attraction from Disney (the studio that's putting it out) and not shy about pyrotechnics itself (a global landmark also becomes a rocket ship), "Tomorrowland" is less interested in spooling a story around a ride than it is in considering bigger questions. Most prominently: what happened to the future? Or, more specifically, what happened to the future the past promised us?

Perhaps most surprising, it is a movie made by (and about) a mega-conglomerate that also tries for something independent-minded, digressive, even weird.

As Bird put it, "We wanted it to be wrapped in a tent-pole skin but have some other things on its mind."

"Tomorrowland" moves in a few directions, sometimes at once, but its basic premise concerns a teenager named Casey (Britt Robertson) in awe of the cosmos — she's straight out of an early Spielberg movie, right down to her spirit of discovery and preference for two-wheeled transportation — who discovers a pin that can transport her to an alternate dimension.

Given the surprise factor, plot summary is best kept to a minimum, but suffice it to say Casey is soon on an adventure with a precocious girl (Raffey Cassidy) and a curmudgeon played by Clooney (Frank, the boy from the beginning, who grows into the man who launches the rubber ducky-themed galactic transport). After an opening section heavy with a sense of wonder, the trio heads to realms both familiar and fantastical, with "Matrix"-like villains in keen pursuit.

The movie's main preoccupation is much the same as Bird's real-life one: dystopia, and why we're in such a hurry to get there, via either our movies or a cultural resignation.

"When Damon and I were first talking about the project, we were wondering why people's once-bright notions about the future gradually seemed to disappear," Bird said.

The director is in a popular downtown brunch spot on a weekend morning, having flown in from San Francisco, where he and his wife live, to do a panel discussion with "Ratatouille" star Janeane Garofalo the previous day, when he spoke about this zeitgeist of defeatism.

"When [Damon and I] were little, people had a very positive idea about the future, even though there were bad things going on in the world," Bird said. "Even the 1964 World's Fair happened during the Cold War. But there was a sense we could overcome them. And yet now we act like we're passengers on a bus with no say in where it's going, with no realization that we collectively write the future every day and can make it so much better than it otherwise would be."

In Bird, moviedom has a director willful enough to get a nearly $200-million original movie made, then pack it both with ideas and a deep sense of optimism — a feat that will seem Walt Disney-esque to his fans and Jiminy Cricket crazy to his skeptics.

Aim-high spirit

When Bird was a child, the story goes, he took a tour of Disney with his parents and declared he'd one day be an animator at the company. A few years later he made a homespun animated film. He wasn't sure what to do with it, but his parents encouraged him to send it to legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl. Kahl wound up mentoring him.

The story sounds apocryphal — the kind of colorful origin bit one might find in, well, a Brad Bird movie — but the director confirms its authenticity. The tale hints at Bird's aim-high spirit, which has followed him into his directing career and made him a perfectionist in a business built on trade-offs. After attending California Institute of the Arts with Pixar guru John Lasseter, he waited years to direct his first movie, instead serving for much of the '90s as a consultant on "The Simpsons."

One can see Bird's go-for-broke attitude etched into his work — the impetuous whimsy of Dash in "The Incredibles," Remy in "Ratatouille" thinking that a move from the sewers to high-end culinary arts is no big deal. Lindelof says the director "should have 'Wouldn't it be cool if?' on a vanity license plate."

That idealism has meant a greater degree of ambition in his movies, but fewer movies in general. Shortly after "The Incredibles," Bird wanted to direct "1906," an epic, effects-driven drama about the San Francisco earthquake. But "Ratatouille" was in trouble, and Lasseter called him in to help. A few years later, Bird set "1906" aside again when J.J. Abrams persuaded him to take on the new "Mission: Impossible."

The reason Bird couldn't get to the finish line with "1906" was in part an unwillingness to make the film with a smaller budget — a reluctance, as he put it, to "throw too much out of the balloon to get it off the ground." It remains unproduced, but Bird says he's still trying.

"Tomorrowland" proved the latest creative use of a "1906" interregnum: The project germinated when Lindelof called Disney production chief Sean Bailey to ask if there was active development on a movie version of the Tomorrowland attraction. When Bailey said no, Lindelof and soon Bird began hashing out ideas. The film was at first more of a scavenger-hunt movie — a kind of venue-hopping riddle piece set against the backdrop of Tomorrowland — before it morphed into its current future-pondering form.

Bird speaks with a jovial, middle-aged cheer, loudly and openly. But there is a headstrong quality below the surface, one that, according to those who've worked with him, can assert itself clearly if he doesn't believe you're on board with his mission.

There is also a more brooding sensibility. Bird and David Lynch both spent much of their childhoods in the moodier Northwest — they were born about 100 miles from each other in Montana. And if Lynch is black-hearted with a sneakily sunny streak, Bird is the opposite, willing to revel in the darkness before allowing in the light.

Despite their close association, Bird is certainly not Lasseter's Hawaiian-shirt happy-go-lucky. Lasseter's favorite Disney movie is "Dumbo" and Bird's is "Pinocchio" — both animated classics with a sense of magic but, with diverging views on what's at the bottom of men's souls.

"I have a cynical side, no question," Bird said. "But ultimately I believe the best part of ourselves will rise to the occasion. I think of Cary Grant, who growing up was named Archie Leach and had this strong Cockney accent. But he basically invented Cary Grant and worked at it, and pretty soon by choosing to be Cary Grant he became him.

"And I don't know," he said, adding in a flourish that wouldn't be out of place on the Silicon Valley campuses near his home, "why people don't think the same about the world."

 

Blended ambitions

If the axiom is true that films are interesting in direct relation to their filmmaker's struggles, Bird is in good shape. He has taken an unusual path — making the difficult transition from animation to live action, all while trying to keep complex plots churning underneath style-heavy set pieces.

Filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, who came on to "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" during production to work on that film's script, notes that "Brad has an astutely visual sense that's matched by an inherent sense of story, which I think is rare for directors, who often lean toward the visuals."

Still, the mix of narrative pyrotechnics with the more literal kind could be a tough sell to audiences. "Tomorrowland" comes into a moviegoing month — it will share theaters with "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "San Andreas" and the decidedly pro-dystopian "Mad Max: Fury Road" — where spectacle is king. Complicated plotting would be tough enough even if it didn't also come with a dose of meditative wonder.

That "Tomorrowland" is based on an original concept instead of a branded work, as the business press often reminds, is indeed a marketing obstacle. But the challenge seems less that notion in general than the particular kind of original concept this movie is--one that's hardly boiled down to an easy explanation. Most polarizing could be the ending, which, without giving anything away, renders Bird's world-view very decisively.

Still, Disney's Bailey said none of this intimidated the company. "It's a big, bold bet, but we need movies like this."

Bird said he felt there was a larger statement for films like "Tomorrowland" to make. Citing all the Wall Street predictions of gloom for original Pixar pieces such as "Ratatouille," "Up" and "Wall-E," he said, "They kept saying, 'Here's their first gold-plated turkey,' because it was something they didn't know. And they kept being wrong."

Then, in a comment about preempting obsolescence that wouldn't be out of place in "Tomorrowland," he added, "We have to shut out that mentality, those voices that are scared and don't know anything. And we have to bring in new ideas. Or we'll end up with nothing left."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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