It’s been a bit quiet on the blog for a while – apologies, but I’ve been embargoed from writing about a couple of films I’ve seen recently. Anyway, one film I have seen, which I am allowed to write about, is Wes Anderson’s latest, Fantastic Mr Fox.
Fox is a marvellous stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl story, and Anderson very much claims it for himself. Anyone expecting his to go way off-message will be, I hope, pleasantly surprised to learn that it is definitely a Wes Anderson film – except one with puppets, that is. I’m going to save my powder on this, as I’ve just reviewed it for a forthcoming issue of UNCUT. But it has made me think: with Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are due later in the year, are we on the cusp of a sea-change in the way children’s films are made?
Of course, Pixar and DreamWorks have pretty much led the way in terms of how children’s films have been made over the last decade. That is to say, they’ve functioned on two levels: state of the art animation for the kids and A-list acting cast and jokes for the grow-d-ups. But as undeniably good fun as Shrek, Finding Nemo, Toy Story and the rest of them are, they all broadly suffer (perhaps inevitably) from the Disneyfication of childhood. It’s a condition that’s been around since the days of Bambi and Dumbo – even a film as complex and grim as WALL-E is ameliorated by the big-eyed cutesiness of WALL-E himself.
So, you might wonder, what will Anderson and Jonze achieve with their respective films? I’d like to think they’re the kind of directors who’d be ready to tackle head on the traumas and complexities of growing up without covering it over with a bland, generic saccharine finish. Anderson’s film is full of typically droll one-liners and idiosyncratic characters; even the Fox’s cub, Ash, is far away from the usual portrayal of child characters in this kind of film. He is sarky, neurotic, and angry – rather like, you might think, a child of a certain age would be in real life. Meanwhile, the trailers for Jonze’s film hints at some kind of family dysfunction for the story’s boy hero, Max; and the subsequent liberation he experiences when cavorting among the Wild Things. “This is your world,” explains Wild Thing Carol (James Gandolfini) – and what young boy doesn’t dream of having a world all of his own to rule?
You’d hope most kids probably wouldn’t have much of a problem with either film. Indeed, you’d hope they’d willingly embrace these strange new takes on their bedtime reading. It strikes me, the people most likely to be concerned about either film are the studios – who presumably can watch their third-party merchandise franchises go up in smoke the minute they hear, say, Gandolfini’s broad Noo Joisey accent voicing a potential soft toy hit. Equally, what must the studio have thought when Jonze suggested that the soundtrack for …Wild Things be done by Karen O, singer with New York’s finest alt-disco punkers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
But I’m not sure, on reflection, whether these films are even meant for children. They might be based on children’s books, sure – but I suspect there’s as many adults keen to see new films from Anderson and Jonze regardless of what subjects they cover.