One for the Kids

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 13 Dec 2009

First it was Wes with The Fantastic Mr Fox, and now Spike with Where the Wild Things Are; the former enfants terribles of American cinema are now making them pour les enfants. For most of us a renewed interest in children's films is just one of the many unexpected side effects of parenthood. There is nothing like watching a DVD on continuous loop for a week with an OCD-affected toddler to make critics of us all. John Lasseter has said that, at his wife's request, they made Toy Story not for children but for the parent who has to watch it a 100 times. And, as someone who has, I can gratefully say they made a good job of it. But what is the attraction for Anderson and Jonze, two men fast approaching middle age with no progeny of their own? Surely their interests should be more grown up? How about global warming? Sex and death? You know, the big stuff. Instead, they've gone for talking foxes and a wild rumpus.

Throughout their careers both directors have been saddled with the “hipster” label, and child-like artlessness has long been a potent weapon in the hipster armoury, that wide-eyed candour that conceals a calculating, categorizing mind, and which makes the uncool person (I include myself) whimper with discomfit. Certainly, this echoes the criticism that has often been levelled at Anderson's films; their unnerving mix of sincerity, artfulness and blank comedy has led to accusations of whimsy, dis-ingenuousness and being just plain too-cool-for-school. So, perhaps The Fantastic Mr Fox can be seen as the ultimate expression of his hipster status: Look, I made a kid's movie. How cool am I? However, this thought is quickly pushed aside by the sheer pleasure of watching the film. The flair of the storytelling, the crackle of the dialogue, and the care taken over the animation and design, suggest that this was a movie that Anderson was born to make. Children's films, from The Wizard of Oz to Spongebob, have always worked on a range of levels, combining adventure with slapstick, moral instruction with risqué jokes, elaborate artifice with emotional sincerity. Perhaps this is what Anderson has been doing in his grown-up films all along.

While Anderson belongs to the cerebral, nerdy end of the hipster spectrum, Jonze long ago took up ownership of the cool skater kid end. As a recent profile in the NYT Magazine suggests, when you watch Jonze's work you wonder if “his creative decisions were motivated by anything other than impulse. An implicit question precedes his artistic choices: Wouldn't it be cool if...”. In this light he is the ideal person to bring Sendak's story of the wilful, impulsive Max to the screen because, essentially, he is Max. This artist-as-child shtick has been with us since the Romantics but in the opening fifteen minutes of WTWTA it seems spot-on; Jonze vividly captures the child's-eye view of the world, its magpie attention span, lowered perspective, and frustrated bewilderment at adult affairs. It is when Max runs away to the monsters' island that we bump up against the limitations of this approach. Jonze and his collaborator, Dave Eggers, use the monsters as facets of their hero's inner life in a psychodrama that risks becoming an exercise in therapy. There is adventure and humour (look out for the giant dog) but, by focussing so exclusively on the consciousness of a nine year old, Jonze has lost at least some of those multiple levels of meaning and pleasure that animate the best children's fiction.

Films for kids are often the most long-lived and the most loved. It's always dangerous to try to predict which film will become a Wizard of Oz and which a Black Cauldron (remember that one?), but I don't think I'm risking much in saying that The Fantastic Mr Fox will be one we return to again and again. I'm not so sure about WTWTA. It may just be too idiosyncratic. This is a shame because both films are the work of committed directors fully engaged with their fascinating material.

For the full profile of Jonze go to: