Friday, June 18, 2010

Lee Weston Sabo: Inimitable Charm -- Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox

Inimitable Charm: Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox
by Lee Weston Sabo
Bright Lights Film Journal

Children are smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, especially when it comes to absorbing complex ideas through storytelling. In children's literature, only the most inventive and nuanced writers are successful, the ones who don't merely convey a sense of wonder but actually stimulate imaginations and engage children in meaningful stories. Unfortunately, the same isn't true of children's cinema, which is flooded with watered down, cookie-cutter narratives with simplistic characters, cheap endings, and unambiguous moral lessons. Rarely does a children's film come along with depth to rival the misfit anxiety of Tove Jansson's Moomin series or the sociopolitical tension of Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book. Children experience loneliness and fear, they watch the news and learn about the terrible things in the world, yet many adults seem to think they need to be cloaked with simple, easily digested stories to keep them complacent and content. Hollywood seems to think the same way about the adult population, as well.

Underestimating children's ability to deal with art and narrative betrays a belief that such mental capacity is an exclusively adult attribute. It would be ridiculous to claim that children are as smart as adults, or that children don't watch plenty of garbage in the cinema and on television, but the success of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are last year indicates that either adults are beginning to find a deeper appreciation of child-oriented art, or that children are finally being given their due access to artistic films instead of just entertainment. I don't have numbers on ticket sales demographics, but I'm betting that it's both, and, in any case, the definition of a "children's movie" is eroding, along with the vague border between what is "childish" and what is "adult" in the cinema. Perhaps it's not so strange, then, that Wes Anderson, a director either obsessed with or frozen in precocious adolescence, should find his greatest film in an adaptation of a short Roald Dahl novel. When an otherwise adult director makes a children's movie, critics often say that he or she seems to have made it for their "inner child," but with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson, like Dahl, really seems to have told a story to appeal to a child's inner adult.

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