The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
[Note: The following installment of “The Skeptics Journey” had a bit of a troubled history. I watched the two movies and started writing it in early January, but was quickly distracted by various end-of-year projects. The Fantastic Mr. Fox section was written within a reasonable time-frame, but the Where the Wild Things Are section went unwritten for so long that I pretty much abandoned the whole thing. However, I eventually decided that I needed to finish what I started and so I reconstructed my intended review using some old notes and hazy memories of the film. As such, half of this piece is going to be pretty rough but at least it’s out there, and I can move on.]
Bolstered by the critical and commercial success of Pixar, all throughout the 2000s the coolness-factor of family films started to go up and up and up. I think that this all peaked in the year 2009, which (perhaps not coincidentally) was the year that Pixar finally got its Best picture nomination for the movie Up. The trend had moved far beyond Pixar and it seemed like every studio was starting to get into the business of making movies that were ostensibly for children but which actually seemed to be made almost entirely for adults. It was the year of Coroline, of 9, of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and of Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol. More importantly, it was the year where two filmmakers who had heretofore made nothing besides R-rated live action films decided to try their hands at making movies that at least looked like they were made for children.
Those two filmmakers were of course Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze and their films were Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things Are. Both of these films were based on classic picture books and both were met with strong critical praise and not so strong box office returns. In fact, both movies barely made their budgets back at the box office and could probably be called bombs, which might explain why the percentage of “children’s films for adults” went down precipitously after 2009. The thing is, neither film really felt like a bomb if you were living in certain circles. These were movies that were made to appeal to certain nostalgic itches that upper-middleclass cineastes in their late twenties and early thirties were feeling and if you happened to know enough of those people you were likely to hear a lot about these two movies over the course of that year. In fact there are no two films that inspired me to start this series of reviews than these two.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
I think Wes Anderson is pretty much at a place where he needs no introduction at this point. His whimsical neo-French New Wave style is almost instantly identifiable to anyone who’s been paying attention to cinema in the last fifteen years and his influence is beyond question as well. The thing is, around 2009 I and many other fans had kind of fallen out of love with the guy. In short, people were growing more than a little tired of his style and he wasn’t really helping his case much by making flawed misfires like 2004’s over-stuffed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and 2007’s under-stuffed The Darjeeling Limited, which is probably his least loved work to date. It was clearly time for Wes Anderson to change things up a bit, but at the same time I think that completely jettisoning his signature style probably would have been a mistake. Eventually he actually came up with a pretty clever solution to his little problem. He opted to make a family movie using stop motion animation, which was a novel enough idea on his own that the film could feel like something fresh even though he was otherwise sticking to if not increasing the use of every other aspect of his usual MO. The resulting film was an interesting little oddity called Fantastic Mr. Fox, which most people viewed as a comeback and it even managed to win over some people who never liked his films in the first place.
The film is based on a book by Roald Dahl, the famous author of offbeat children’s books. I never read any of his books either as a child or in adulthood, but I have seen quite a few adaptations of his work and have a pretty good idea of what is authorial voice is. Frankly I’m not exactly sure how his stuff caught on, it’s all just very weird. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” would seem to be one of his more straightforward books, a sort of take on Beatrix Potter style stories about woodland creatures having adventures. Being as it’s about talking animals, a live action version of the story was pretty much out of the question. Wes Anderson has always been a very tactile filmmaker (if he’s ever used CGI for anything you wouldn’t know it from watching his films), so it makes sense that he went the stop-motion route for the project instead of conventional or computer generated animation. Originally he was planning to work with Henry Selick (of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach fame), who he had worked with on some of the effects in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but Selick was busy directing Coraline when production was scheduled so Anderson instead worked with a guy named Mark Gustafson who has had a more anonymous career in the animation world and who probably interfered less in Anderson’s vision.
The animation style that Anderson went with differs from the last barnyard set stop-motion riff on genre filmmaking I saw (Chicken Run) in that it’s more marionette-like than clay-like. It reminded me a lot of those old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials except it was done on a higher budget and was a little more detailed all around. The animation is not seamless, but it also isn’t really supposed to be. Anderson is going for a sort of warm lo-fi approach to animation, where you can pretty clearly see the animator’s fingerprints displacing the fox’s fur in-between takes. The film does end up doing a pretty serviceable job of replicating Anderson’s visual style within the animation, complete with Anderson’s signature pans and montages. The biggest difference from his previous work (aside from the obvious) is probably that he opted for the narrower 1.85:1 aspect ratio here, which he stuck with for Moonrise Kingdom and reports indicate that his next film (The Grand Budapest Hotel) will be at the even narrower Academy ratio for much of its running time.
So, I mostly approve of the visual style, but what about the substance… well, allow me to digress for a second. I’m not a big NPR listener, but one show I do listen to every week (in podcast form) is “This American Life.” The show is a staple of public radio and every week it manages to provide both important journalistic pieces and interesting personal anecdotes. However that show’s Achilles heel (aside from David Sedaris) is when it decides to broadcast fictional pieces that almost always take the form of hipster-ific short stories based around the “hilarious” conceit that they’re about talking animals (or storybook characters, or bible characters, or whatever) who, get this, talk and think like they’re contemporary yuppies. Its basically the same dumb high concept that fueled the cartoon “The Flintstones,” a one-joke show about how cave men are just like us except that all their stuff is made of rocks and/or named after some kind of rock related pun. I’ve got to say, at times this movie did not seem all that removed from that kind of bullshit.
Here the various animals speak and behave almost exactly like typical Wes Anderson characters except that they’re wild animals who live underground and eat raw meat and stuff. They even curse like typical Anderson characters except with the word “cuss” being used in place of actual profanities in order to keep things PG. George Clooney in particular seems to be doing his usual “smartest guy in the room” routine, although the film does subvert that persona here and there. The rest of the cast is about as sprawling as it usually is in a Wes Anderson film, though I’ve got to say that some of the voice cast is maybe a little underutilized. One thing that’s not overly clear in the movie is the extent to which humans and animals interact in this world. At times it seems that the animals exist in their own little world and the farmers don’t know they can talk, but at times the farmers seems to interact with the animals as if they’re sentient foes. Particularly odd is the rat voiced by Willem Dafoe, who appears to have been hired by the farmers in order to oppose the Fox’s gang, but I have no idea how the farmers went about communicating this to him.
In retrospect, it maybe isn’t that odd that Wes Anderson opted to go the family film route if only for one film. His whole filmography seems to be defined by whimsy and a certain childlike innocence. His characters have a certain charming naiveté and innocence to them which, in the context of live action films made for and starring adults, have a certain nostalgic charm to them. Here it’s the opposite, we’re seeing a childish and whimsical environment but all the characters are acting like adults with adult problems. I’ve heard a lot of movies described as “adult movies disguised as kid’s movies,” and this is one of the few times where I really agree. That doesn’t necessarily mean I love it or anything, but I really don’t know what kids are supposed to get out of this. If it wasn’t about talking animals this easily could have fit into the mold of a standard issue mid-life crisis movie, albeit one with a lighthearted thievery twist. I don’t mean that as either a criticism or as praise, its just… this is a really weird movie.
It’s a movie that doesn’t make sense as entertainment for children and its visual style scares away all but the hippest of adult audiences who watch the trailers and just assume it’s another animated flick. As such I’m not too surprised that it failed at the box office. And fail it did. You’d think that the family film trappings would have been a means of getting the film more mainstream exposure than Wes Anderson’s usual indie fare but it didn’t. In fact it made less at the box office than three of Wes Anderson’s seven films (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and Moonrise Kindom if you want to look forward), and would have also been outgrossed by Rushmore if you adjusted for inflation. Considering that those were all quirky indies with platform releases, that’s saying something.
Do I wish it did better? Well, yes and no. As a Wes Anderson fan I did find plenty to like here and I’m glad I at least watched it. When Criterion releases their Blu-Ray of the movie in February I probably will pick it up if only out of auteur completeism. Also, if family movies are going to get made, there probably should be a place for projects like this which try to do things a little different than the lame-ass Dreamworks/Ice Age formula. Anderson’s next movie was a live action effort that was clearly for an adult audience (even if the characters were children) and his next project seems to be as well, so it looks like this was just a one-off goof, and a fairly enjoyable one for the most part. As long as he keeps it that way I don’t mind too much.
Where the Wild Things Are
In the grand scheme of things, Fantastic Mr. Fox was a fairly low-profile effort aimed at Wes Anderson fans and at families looking for a quirky diversion, but the same cannot necessarily be said of 2009’s other major auteur family movie: Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. This was a $100 million dollar effort based on a much loved picture book that had been bouncing around Hollywood for nearly thirty years before Spike Jonze finally convinced Warner Borthers to let him make it. Like no film before this seemed to be the ultimate test of whether or not this whole “kids’ movies for adults” thing was truly a viable business model or whether or not it might be better to keep the worlds of indie cinema and children’s entertainment separate. I’ll give them this, their trailer almost had me convinced. That perfectly cut two minute masterpiece set to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” was pretty tantalizing and almost made me want to give the movie a shot, but I ultimately decided against in part because the reviews were so polarized. Some critics really seemed to love it, but most kind of sat on the fence between respectful bemusement and reverential bafflement.
Normally when I finally sit down to watch these critically adored family films I see what people like in them, but also come away with a feeling that what I just watched really was a lot more childish and juvenile than its supporters want to admit. With this one though, I finally didn’t feel cheated: this really truly does feel like a kids’ movie that’s truly meant for adults. It feels so much like it was meant for adults that failed to attract many kids to theaters when it was released back in 2009 and by all accounts the kids that did go (who were more than likely dragged there by their hipster parents) didn’t seem to like it much. I remember reading an audience reaction article that described a child looking to his mother half-way through the film and asking her something like “mommy, why does this movie have to be so sad?” So, we finally have a mature family movie, that should make me happy right? Wrong. Simply being a movie meant for adults does not make a film good, and while there were things I admired about Where the Wild Things Are, I don’t necessarily think it’s any good.
The film starts out pretty well by looking at young Max in the real world and doesn’t hesitate to make him an authentically annoying kid in a way that most family movies don’t. In fact, he’s a walking condom advertisement if ever there was one. The film opens with him throwing a major tantrum after he provokes some older kids and they get slightly rougher than he intended and then don’t give an apology that he considers sufficient. He quickly takes this “trauma” out on his mother, who is too busy to play along with the attention starved little shit’s imaginary games, which pisses him off to no end. He gets so angry that, like Dorothy before him, he runs away and suddenly finds himself in a fantasy world populated by “wild things,” and that’s where the movie starts to go downhill fast.
I feel like this is a film where Spike Jonze has essentially cast himself as this kid’s savior. He’s telling this kid that he understands how much of a bummer it is to be a ten year old who can’t get his mommy to play with him in his stupid fort so he’s going to provide this kid with a wonderful escape into a magical world filled with understanding people in freakish mascot outfits. Not only will these wild things understand him and play along with his every retarded fantasy, they’ll also praise him and make him their leader. These imaginary friends don’t really have lives of their own, so they’ll happily play with Max all day and night and are happy to build him a gigantic fort. And that’s more or less when I really started getting pretty actively bored with the whole movie. At a certain point it just turns into this really aimless hang-out movie where Max and all the monsters are just playing together.
To his credit, Spike Jonze brings a lot of panache to the film. This is a much better showcase of his visual capabilities than the two relatively visually restrained Charlie Kaufman movies that he made previously and Lance Acord’s cinematography almost reminds me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist in the way that it manages to simultaneously look beautiful and naturalistic. However, no amount of visual beauty is going to matter when the movie itself is this misguided. In many ways it actually reminds me of another movie I watched for this project: The Polar Express. Like that movie, this one is imaginative and visually grand but in service of a movie that’s almost impossible to enjoy. Jonze’s movie didn’t have quite as many bizarre moments and had a slightly better handle on tone, but there was a similar boredom that set in once it got going and a similarly insane sense of melancholy whimsy. The film’s trailer makes a pretty good case that this visual aesthetic could have made for a very good music video or something, but at feature length the thing gets old fast.
I’m sort of conflicted on this one. On paper I think it is a noble effort. In general I’m a believer in the idea of giving big budgets to people like Spike Jonze and allowing them to make bold artistic expressions like this. Jonze clearly had a vision, it just happened to be a vision that I do not share or enjoy watching… at all. It was also a vision that most of America didn’t seem to share. The movie wasn’t a complete bomb at the box office, it did make about $100 million dollars worldwide (77% of it domestically, interestingly), which theoretically means that it broke even but that’s hardly the kind of return on investment that Hollywood wants out of its big budget family movies. Jonze clearly bounced back by making the lower budget and decidedly adult follow-up, Her. Ultimately I’m going to have to call this one a failed experiment and a nice try, but also a pretty massive failure.
As I said at the outset, 2009 was the epicenter of the “kid movies for adults” trend. It was also the year that Hollywood maybe started to see the limitations of the trend and learned that they maybe needed to reign in vanity projects like Where the Wild Things Are. In fact I almost want to envision a scenario where all the studio-executives got together and greenlit that movie as some sort of crazy experiment to see just how arty they could allow a family movie to become before it starts to alienate the target audience. I think they got their answer, because movies like that stopped getting made pretty quickly. You’d occasionally still get an auteur driven family movie like Hugo (another movie that made less money than its buzz would suggest) but for the most part family movies have gotten a lot more Frozen and a lot less Fantastic Mr. Fox in the last few years. Hell, even Pixar seems to have lost a lot of its luster. Part of me is disappointed that these movies are being made with less artistic ambition now, but truthfully I’m kind of relieved. A world where people aren’t insisting that the latest cartoon is Oscar worthy is a world where I don’t feel as much pressure to go to the damn things.
That was the last installment of my planned “season 1,” the original plan was to have a brief hiatus for award season and then start all over again, but that plan is clearly out the window. In fact I don’t plan to make any more monthly commitments like that, but I’m not quite ready to call it quits on the series altogether. I will be doing some future installments, but they’ll probably be a little more sporadic and I’m not making any promises.