Review by Ryan Wilson
Children's films are a tricky business. They need to speak uniquely to kids without underestimating them. That's why the best children's films reject adult versions of childhood while reflecting deep and universal themes. When they do this, adults can enjoy them too because they make us feel like we're exploring the world all over again. In other words, kids' films aren't just for children.
We need look no further than the annual Pixar movie for these experiences. What was The Incredibles but a comic book version of a dysfunctional family? What was Ratatouille but a slapstick meditation on the need to create art? What was Cars but a hot wheel lament to rural America? If you want some specific evidence, I'd point you to the now-classic montage that appears early in last year's film Up. In a mere half-minute we understand love, loss and loneliness better than most adult films show us in two hours. Though you and your child may laugh heartily at the flying house, the talking dogs, and the funny bird, what really sticks with us no matter our age is the pathos.
Two thousand nine might be known as the year children's fare became truly ambitious. Two classic children's tales, Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, attracted the two hippest writer-director pairings of their time. Both films have recently been released on DVD, and both tap into not just childhood journeys but adult longings.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, out last week on DVD, is the adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic tale of a sly fox stealing from his neighboring farmers. But the film feels more like Ocean's Eleven meets The Breakfast Club than like Dahl. Part of this is due to George Clooney, who voices Mr. Fox and plays him as a suave hustler, an animal whose nature is less about survival and more about the chase. Clooney is perfect casting, but the real credit goes to Director Wes Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Noah Baumbach. Their emphasis, as with their previous films, is on the angst of everyday existence.
Anderson is best known for his breakthrough Rushmore, which follows the antics of overzealous student Max Fischer at his private school. Anderson followed this with The Royal Tenenbaums, which follows an overzealous disbarred lawyer, Royal Tenenbaum, trying to reconcile with his estranged family. Mr. Fox has a bit of both of these characters in him. Like Max, he won't play it safe, and like Royal, he'll put his own needs ahead of his family. Mr. Fox's war against the farmers is less a battle of animal aggression than it is his own battle against ennui. Baumbach's influence is seen in Mr. Fox's son, who's just trying to cope with his egomaniacal father and live comfortably in his shadow. This mirrors Baumbach's own breakthrough film, The Squid and the Whale, in which a teenager's identity is wrecked by his selfishly ambitious parents.
If all of this sounds heavy for a children's film, don't worry. There's plenty of action, plenty of heart and plenty of tender moments to round out all the angst. Yet the insecurity and restlessness of the characters fuel the film. There's also the magical stop-motion animation that makes The Fantastic Mr. Fox feel handcrafted, as if Anderson were literally a middle school student making a very elaborate diorama for class.
Where the Wild Things Are, released earlier this month, is also a labor of love, although one has to strain to find its affections. Adapted from the classic Maurice Sendack book, the film is directed by Spike Jonze, best known for shooting screenwriter Charlie Kauffman's mindbenders Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. This time he's teamed with Dave Eggers, whose memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius recounts his and his younger brother's life after the untimely death of their parents.
That's a good place to begin discussing Where the Wild Things Are because the film is rooted in loss. Not the physical loss of a parent, but the emotional loss of stability. Our lead Max is lonely for friends and largely ignored and misunderstood by his mother. He flees to an island where the "wild things," an array of monsters, make him their king simply because he seems to have the will for the job. Yet Max finds them just as distant and just as temperamental as those in his world and comes to discover that freedom is only relative to happiness.
Where the Wild Thing Are was widely criticized during its theatrical release for being too dark for children. And it is. The Wild Rumpus feels more like couple's therapy than any sort of wild euphoria. There is tenderness in the film but to get there your child will suffer through a bleak trek through irrelevant adventures. It's less like a children's book and more like a master's thesis on existentialism: purely joyless.
And yet one has to admire the effort. Jonze and Eggers are uncompromising in their vision. Max is never given stability because, according to the film, nothing is ever stable. The lesson being presumably that one has to make one's own stability out of the life they have. That's a powerful message for a child to get, but even adults might become distraught and annoyed getting to it through this film.
Both Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox can be accused of being too clever for their own good, and especially too clever for some children. The makers of each can also be accused of hijacking the material and putting their own idiosyncrasies on such classics. Yet both films challenge children of all ages, and today's children may be more thankful in time, long after Shrek is a distant memory.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.