2009 has been an amazing year for children's films. Aside from the routine crap forced in theatres like G-FORCE and IMAGINE THAT, studios have put out films like MONSTERS VS. ALIENS, UP, and CORALINE. Then, this Fall we were delivered two children's films by heavyweight artists, Spike Jonze's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX - both based on beloved books, and both very endearing movie-going experiences. These films are amazing, and like Disney/Pixar's output and Henry Selick's CORALINE, they trust kids to grapple with subjects that may be slightly over their heads, but with which they need to grapple.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a film about growing up, and not letting our wild instincts get the better of us. Jonze is really adept at invoking the fantastic into the mundane, as he did so memorably in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and his various music videos for surreal artists like Björk, Blur and Fatboy Slim. The fantastic points of a child's imagination are second nature to Jonze at this point. His Wild Things differ from Sendak's only in that they are fully fleshed out metaphors of the protagonist's (Max) hopes and fears and dreams. He wants to be a good kid for his mom and sister, but like all kids, he feels left out when his sister starts hanging out with older friends and his mom's attention is diverted to her boyfriend; he acts out to regain their attention. I think this is perfectly relatable for children.
Max retreats to his fantasy world, where he is King and can act out his wild impulses.
Karen O's songs for the film are pretty amazing all on their own, but in context of the film's brilliant imagery, they are a revelation. The songs, and score, co-credited to O and composer Carter Burwell, perfectly present feelings of sadness, joy, jealousy, and any other feeling Max encounters throughout the film. The songs are certainly precious (as they have been called derisively by many a reviewer), but they are definitely not cute little melodies - there's real emotion toiling away in there, from the jangling guitars to the pounding drums and all the way to the chorus of "the kids" whom Karen O performs with. To my mind, the collaborative power of the image and the accompanying music is rarely this in tune, and nothing evokes the feeling of childhood wonder and imagination aside from the partnership's closest corrolary: Mark Mothersbaugh and Wes Anderson, whose work achieved the same effect in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and RUSHMORE, but toward a different goal.
The Wild Things are fully realized creations, not just CGI or practical effects - everything used to make them believable.
Then there are the Wild Things themselves: huge puppet creations worn by actors, manipulated manually and digitally, and which couldn't possibly exist in a real-world setting. Aside from the special effects, the voice work is phenomenal, and it's a shame that James Gandolini turns in an amazing performance as Carol, the Things' leader, and will probably receive no awards recognition. Voice work just isn't appreciated. Each Wild Thing represents an emotion of Max, constantly at odds with one another, and occasionally in sync. The device is pretty standard for storytelling purposes, but for a children's film it's pretty brave. Children have to be trusted to 'get' things that, despite an adult audience's perspective, aren't really that well-telegraphed, and are just taken for granted as metaphors in everyday film language.
As adaptations go, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is pretty solid, building upon a much shorter, yet infinitely imaginative and rich work in order to tell a much more nuanced and heavily expanded version of the original storybook. And, it manages to stay true to the spirit of the original work, which so many adaptations seem to fail to do. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX is similarly successful, but perhaps because of its many changes and re-moldings. Based on a short novella by Roald Dahl (who wrote many beloved books, not the least of which are THE WITCHES and MATILDA), Wes Anderson's film expands not only its plot and motivations for its characters, but also the world its story takes place in itself, approaching the material at a radically different, and slightly American-ized (it's true) angle. This isn't to say that it's unrecognizable in comparison to its source, in fact the entire plot of the book makes it into the middle third of the film, but that Anderson book-ends the film with some nice character touches, and ultimately shows that even though the film is a parable for children about talking animals, it is really about the same thing all of his films are about: childhood, ego, and the bubbling discontent that seems to always be just below the surface of adulthood.
Mr. Fox wants to be the natural leader; well-regarded and respected. This is a typical Anderson type.
Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, is a Wes Anderson regular, essentially he is the Royal Tenenbaum or Max Fischer of the movie; someone who constantly has to scheme in order to make himself seem like the "fantastic" person he envisions himself as and he wants everyone else to regard. The film's central conflict isn't even all the chicken-snatching or tunneling away from the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, but instead the disinterest he seems to feel for his family, both to the audience and to Mrs. Fox and their son, Ash, and the longing he feels to be free and wild and just sneak into chicken coops like he used to. Indeed, the initial break-in at Bunce's farm with Kylie, is ripped straight from THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, when Royal bonds with his grandkids by showing them how much fun screwing around with the law is. Maybe not a great father, but it definitely is something new for children to contemplate. Besides, Mr. Fox is interested in his family, he's also just interested in himself and wants them to be interested in him, too, like I imagine all fathers do. It might be difficult for younger children to fully comprehend, but they don't really even have to think about all of this now, because the sly move of Anderson's is that THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX is full of one-liners, physical gags, and otherwise throwaway jokes about credit cards. It's funny, and that's what kids will take away from it.
Anderson's throwaway gags (like the "bandit masks" and "modified tube sock" shown here) are hilarious and light, allowing children to glomb onto whatever aspect of the film they find interesting.
Aesthetically, it's nearly indistinguishable from any other Wes Anderson feature. If I didn't look at the credits and know that another cinematographer had worked with him this time out, I wouldn't have given it another thought. Oddly missing, though, is a score by Mothersbaugh, replaced by Alexandre Desplat, whose score is certainly worthy (as is his formidable resume of previous work), but lacks that certain quality that made the musical interludes in TENENBAUMS so memorable. Perhaps the film doesn't need the music, as it does a fair job of injecting the trademark Anderson 60s and 70s rock and roll into the action, with the very first scene, when Mr. and Mrs. Fox break into their last chicken coop together, set to The Beach Boys, "Heroes and Villains." In fact, this is maybe the first Anderson film I didn't immediately notice something about the instrumental music.
In any case, I'm ecstatic that both of these films turned out as well as they did. Both are sure to be regarded as classics, and will be remembered by cinephiles and children alike long after the memories of the latest kids being babysat flick starring The Rock or Vin Diesel (or Jackie Chan now, apparantly.) Thank goodness for filmmakers who trust kids like I was once trusted all those years ago when I was watching THE LABYRINTH or THE NEVERENDING STORY. All hope is not lost quite yet.