Saturday, April 3, 2010

In Praise of Hipster Children's Films

I'm still catching up with last year's movies. Just finished off what were deemed by the press as the "hipster" children's films, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Where the Wild Things Are." Even after a decade of everyone and their dentist trying to explain what a hipster is, I'm still not clear exactly what they are or what they do. But if these are the kinds of films that hipster children get, than I want to be one.

Of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," I don't have much to say, except that I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did. When I first saw the trailers for this one, I wasn't sure what to make of the retro stop-motion animation and celebrity-heavy voice cast, and there were rumors flying around that Wes Anderson may not have actually directed it. Viewing the film put that theory to rest, because "Mr. Fox" is clearly an Anderson film. It has all the earmarks: the captions, the incredibly particular art direction, the long pan shots, the full set of Anderson character types (weary mother, blustering father, resentful son, and assorted colorful eccentrics), and the distinctly familiar dialogue.

Dahl fans may fret that the film is so much more Anderson than Dahl, as Anderson invents a new beginning and ending, and shifts the focus to Mr. Fox's personal crises of identity and family. This does not take away from the story, but rather couches the events in a different context. Anderson does stay fairly true to the book's plot and many of its particulars. (The poem about the three bad farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, is recited early on and recurs as the lyrics to the main musical theme. And several of Anderson's trademark captions incorporate chapter titles.) He just doesn't stop with the book, essentially having Dahl's characters star in a psychodrama of his own making that happens simultaneously with the action. And it's a pretty fun ride.

"Where the Wild Things Are" was the best trailer I saw last year. It literally had me on the verge of tears in the theater as I recognized the images appearing one by one. The film got lost in the shuffle of prestige pics and was all but ignored at awards season. I'm glad I waited to see it until now, away from the hype and away from the critics trying to vivisect it. I haven't had a film hit me this hard on an emotional level in a while now, and there's no question that it is something very, very special.

I am intimately familiar with the Maurice Sendak picture book, which is very short and simple. The movie is neither of these things, yet doesn't add as many original elements as I was expecting. We do see a little more of Max's home life before he runs away, glimpses of an older sister and his mother's date, who spark Max's wild behavior. Yet most of the film, as in the book, is spent on the island of the Wild Things, and this is where it truly comes alive. I could go on for several thousand words about the way the film looks and sounds, how beautifully the Wild Things are translated from film to screen visually, how the natural landscape is more wondrous than any CGI generated creation could ever be, and how the strange, unconventional soundtrack works wonders.

But what the film does, and does so well, is to capture and distill that sense of being a child, which is not as pleasant as adults remember it being. Emotions are sharp and feelings are strange, and the most wonderful moments of happiness can turn into raging anger or abject despair in an instant. And it's impossible to explain why. The movie turns the Wild Things into extensions of Max's own emotions, a pack of oversized, furry, feathery, monstery, child-like creatures for him to play with. Yet like children, they're not simple or stupid, and Max's innocent interactions with the Wild Things have some deeply unhappy, awful consequences that turn dangerous for everyone involved. Their problems seem so small – tending hurt feelings, making sure everyone gets along, and letting everyone have their turn – but of course they're anything but.

I've read complaints that the film has no plot, that Max and the Wild Things spend too much time talking and sitting around. But really, that's plenty enough. "Where the Wild Things Are" works by dream logic, where the emotional reality is far more important than anything that's happening literally. It doesn't matter that KW, a female Wild Thing, has two friends who turn out to be owls, but that her having those friends makes the most prominent Wild Thing, Carol, jealous and resentful. And it doesn't matter that Carol an Max try to build a fort that is ultimately abandoned, but that building it doesn't make either of them as happy as they thought they would be. This is not a movie for thinking, but for feeling, and for feeling not only the joy and laughter and thrills, but also the sadness and fear and rage that childhood is made of.

Both of these films were made by directors who clearly loved and respected their source material. And yet neither were so reverent as to curb their own creative impulses to expand upon them. "Mr. Fox" and "Wild Things" come off as thoughtful, nostalgic, and very honest, which is something that seems to be missing in many children's films lately. I don't know how most kids would respond to these pictures, especially the talky "Mr. Fox," but I know I would have loved them as a kid. I never understood what the puns and jokes in "Rudolf" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle" were about until I was much older, but loved them anyway. And it was almost a relief sometimes to come across moments in "The Sword in the Stone" or "Lady in the Tramp" where I knew I was supposed to feel sad.

May we all be hipster children, and may the hipsters keep making us films.

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