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Nothing's Perfect: "Where the Wild Thing Are" & "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Ryland Walker Knight

Where The Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox are new to DVD this month, offering viewers more at home opportunities to grapple with their different approaches to how we might define a "children's movie." Both films are adapted from children's books, which pegs-assumes they are children's movies, but neither is made for children outright (if at all) since both films detail the rites of growing up from a certain aged perspective. One film's ragged, the other all aligned, and both are, by dint of their source material, tidily grouped into a discussion of audience and posture: how each stands on its own, wobbly or rigid, and how we might stand with them, sidelong or open-armed. Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are is mostly handheld and the kind of myopic that befits its preteen protagonist, a petulant little tyke named Max hell-bent on raising some hell and not looking back. Yet Jonze's film is a slog, pitched directly at sadness, every turn a battle against or a flight from pain, while Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox props up like a pop-up with one sight after another designed to delight. Fox is, in every frame, a geometric marvel of right angles and scrolling panels, each composition jam-packed with information and tightened off by the control Anderson exerts over every millimeter of screen space. Though both films are about burrowing (both feature tunnels of varied sizes and importance, not to mention of vision), there's an ease of invitation, say a charm, that Fox projects and that Wild Things wants to reject, shuffling around its world of damaged souls-things-beasts with its nose down and out to scour the dirt for how hurt hurts.

Since it came out first last fall and has been available on DVD longer, let's talk about Wild Things to start. The camera is trained low, almost always peering up at things, like trees and parents and those things the title talks about. It's firmly rooted in Max's perspective from before the credits start, featuring his scribbles on the Warner's logo, as if to claim it like a kid claims a toy or a book or a fort. It's a film precisely about privilege and a youth's interest in owning the world he lives in, the world he desires and makes. But that idea, the focus of every scene, grates towards tedious as the picture clamors forth. It seems every encounter on the film's island other-world (to say in Max's brain since his seafaring venture, the real highlight of this whiplash flick, is prompted by woozy dissolves around his closed-eyes and wolf-clad head) is a challenge or a confrontation, that childish view of the world as perpetual one-upmanship and me-first games. Indeed, correspondence is literal here: that globe from home becomes the fort, the snowball becomes a dirt clod. We never leave Max's side, we're never in doubt that we're not inside his dreary vision of things. It's a bold risk to pin the movie on (and in) Max, to ask us to take him seriously, and I wish I could say I do.

Most peculiar about this otherwise wildly ambitious picture is its placid satisfaction with embodying this phase of "childhood"—its abrupt start and stop place the film as a snippet of a life—as if without concrete consequence (emotions are another story). Or, that the film's idea of parenthood, such as it extends from Max, is an ideal of subordination. After Max wrecks his island dream through neglect and miscommunication, he abandons all he has wrought, all those things he says he loves, all of those forms equally Platonic shadows and Jungian projections, returning home to his at-ends mom where Catherine Keener barely registers beyond a frown. Underneath a rather triumphant bit of the all-too-present Karen O score (as with most silent film scores, it aims to underline events), we gather that this mom is too tired to stay mad and all is neatly ignored. The film closes as she closes her eyes, resigned to her kid, while Max sits near her snacking all smiles to have her eyes, even as her lids fall, on him. It's the easiest moment in this unruly melee of metaphysics and it feels mawkish, not melancholy—not even punk—like a pulled punch.

Fantastic Mr. Fox looks a lot cleaner than the Wild Things but it's got its kinks. Though this is often said pejoratively, it's nonetheless correct: Fox is a diorama mise-en-scène. It's a closed world, for sure, and you can even see the walls dictating its arena in certain cross-section shots that ape the style of an educational kids' book (here's the heart, here's the lungs, here's the living room). Every image is designed as much as directed, its literal hands-on production of minutiae made evident in every figure's fiber's subtle twitch, every little limb's wired upright jerk. All these seeming imperfections of stop-motion offer up a vision that says, okay, mistakes are a part of everything at every moment. Put otherwise, nothing's perfect.

Like all the Anderson films before it, Fox centers on a character unhappy with his lot and greedy for something else, something more. Fox starts free, running wild with his wife, until the literal prison of parenthood falls down around him and his amber-glow world turns overcast in a leap cut eliding twelve fox years. All in less than five minutes. It's a deft film. But let's back up: the film starts with a rhyme. Not just any rhyme, either, but a narrative rhyme that we will see played out (even echoed in children's singing voices) as the film unfolds, one bit of steal-from-the-rich mischief at a time. (Funny to remember that Disney anthropomorphized Robin Hood as a fox.) We might say, to follow the geometry, that Fox is a proof, but that would take the play out of it. As tidy as some lines are, a lot gets fudged.

One fat, one short, one lean: Bogis and Bunce and Bean are the most one-dimensional "bad guys" Wes Anderson has ever written. In this, it's his most accessible film. Though, on the flip-side, this makes the film's us-versus-them combat structure a little too easy (hence the "kids" tag). After the images' brilliance, the richness of the "us" keeps things interesting, primarily evident in the voice talent: all the animals are American while the humans are British, signaling another subtle, potential political-historical allegory you can chose to follow or not. And it's these lines drawn between human and animal that make Fox more suitable-palatable for children than the Things Jonze dreamt up. But the kids won't get everything: that scratch Mrs. Fox gives her Mr. is, by far, one of the deepest cuts of (and about) love in the movies last year. Its picture of paternal duty is much fuller, and more fun, than the seeming maternal debt posited by the Wild Things close. Yet Wild Things is about the boy, not the mom, so we might say that its cloudy idea of the world is fitting, that its by-the-whiskers grasp on things, however irresponsible, makes sense. But that's just it: no matter the dedication to a point of view, Things is one-note, mired in its navel to aggrandize "the child" simply because he's a child. It's not about potential, just wonder—and I do not mean thoughtfulness, though it does celebrate imagination somewhat heedlessly. Fox, on the other hand, is out to deflate dads' egos, its fantasy tinctured by real ramifications. The death of Rat, for instance, is affecting in that he is not simply evil, more misguided, that his history with Fox (and Mrs. Fox) shows this world extends beyond its frame. Every act of violence in the picture carries such weight. The scratch on Fox's cheek tells us his wife's limits. Fox's lost tail is a castration joke made sad by Clooney's tone. Rat's demise does indeed show us that survival means life-and-death. Though animation lends itself to a realm of the concept, and what's an emotion but a concept, the materiality of Fox's disclosed world (we actually see every element in Anderson's near-panopticon), not to mention the charity that is comedy, makes the ache inside all that tumult more true.


Spike JonzeWes Anderson
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