We’ve been looking for Ben’s first movie theater-movie for years. It had to be fairly quiet: no big explosions, no loud soundtrack (though we would bring ear plugs to protect against overzealous projectionists.) It had to be a gentle story: no heightened drama, no second act inflated by chase scenes. I could do without a lot of violence, car crashes or gun play (which make a surprising number of appearances even in G-rated kids’ movies) and a well-written movie that didn’t traffic in stereotypes would be welcome, though mostly I just wanted something that would make Ben laugh.
And so we found it, a movie about a fellow who makes a living as a thief until one day, while he is imprisoned for his crimes, he learns his wife is pregnant and he decides to go legit, writing a little-read column for the local newspaper. He settles into a modest life with his wife, a landscape painter, and his quirky son, a boy who embarrasses his father because he wears a bath towel as a cape and tucks his socks into his pants. When the boy’s cousin comes for an extended visit, the father isn’t ashamed to say that he prefers his socially-adept, athletic nephew to his son. But the quiet life bores him and he is tempted back into his life of crime, stealing from his neighbors, deceiving his wife, and ultimately putting his entire community at risk.
Wes Anderson’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is perfect, though of course any plot summary might have a cautious parent raising an eyebrow. So it is with Dahl, who — like Maurice Sendak — doesn’t shy away from violence in stories for children (when’s the last time you read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?), but (unlike Sendak) writes it up with so much charm, wit, and exaggerated zaniness that children and adults aren’t horrified, but delighted.
The timing was perfect for us. Ben’s second grade class had just finished reading the book, and he had been coming home every day with a fresh report of Mr. Fox’s doings. A friend and I, finally getting out for a long-delayed movie date, found that Fantastic Mr. Fox was playing at the right theater at the right time, so I could preview it. The boys peppered me with questions before I went out that night — “Will you be home before we’re asleep?”, “Will you wake us up to tell us about the movie?”, “If you like the movie, will we all go tomorrow?” — more interested in my movie date than ever before. The next morning at breakfast the barrage of questions continued (now including Ben’s examination of differences between the two versions), and when school let out early for the winter holiday, we headed straight downtown for a matinee and settled in with our popcorn and ear protection.
I was won over with the very first shot, a long close-up of the book — a nice acknowledgment that Anderson’s screenplay (co-written with Noah Baumbach) honors the book, in mood, at least, even as it makes various minor changes to the plot (which — since I haven’t read the book — my son has carefully detailed for me, and approved). The boys were won over by the first chase scene, which shows Mr. and Mrs. Fox break into a squab pen and steal two birds; the soundtrack twangs with banjos and mouth harps and we watch from a distance as the two characters, like a pair of Olympic gymnasts, leap and flip in their slightly-stuttering stop action animation to get their birds and get out. Nearly every action scene — from the various chases to the few explosions — is shot from a distance, and accompanied either by jug band music or Beach Boys’ surf tunes, which mitigate, rather than unnecessarily heighten, the drama. The titles too, their exaggerated yellow letters announcing major events — like “The Shooting” — helped prepare the kids (even a pre-reader like my son Eli) for what was to come in each scene. The bold titles stand out from the film’s otherwise warm, earthy browns and yellows, punctuated by bright details like Mrs. Fox’s funky headband or the explosions, more beautiful than any I’ve seen in film before, the flames like candied jewels.
Plus, the writing and the voices are terrific. George Clooney’s droll and elegant Mr. Fox is straight out of Ocean’s 11, living for the caper even when it occasionally goes awry; he always lands on his feet, though he generally has to dust himself off. And he’s a charming feminist, who’s quick with a rebuttal when an unsavory character besmirches Mrs. Fox’s reputation: “Certainly she lived, we all did; let’s not use a double standard.” Meryl Streep’s Mrs. Fox is wry and indulgent of her indefatigable husband, though she doesn’t take any guff from him (and let me pause here to say thank you, Wes Anderson, for creating a world — unique in the youth-obsessed, sexist world of Hollywood film — in which the sixty-year-old Meryl Streep is no cougar, but simply an appropriate partner for the forty-eight-year-old George Clooney). Meanwhile their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) convey sibling rivalry and middle school angst truthfully but with far less drama than the creatures of Where the Wild Things Are. In a chemistry lab scene, a classmate asks Kristofferson, “Why’s your cousin such a wet sandwich? He’s too short, he dresses like a girl.” To which the equanimous boy replies mildly, “Are you a bully? You’re starting to sound like a bully.”
If it’s important to you that the film teaches a Lesson, you should know that Mr. Fox is punished for his crimes, both physically (his tail is shot off) and emotionally (Mrs. Fox gives him a proper tongue-lashing). The film is redemptive, too: Mr. Fox commits to changing his thieving ways; Ash retrieves his father’s tail and gains his respect. But if you, like me, look to the movies more for your children’s entertainment than their education, then know that you can take your kids to Fantastic Mr. Fox, and they will giggle their way through it, sing its theme song for days afterward, and start hatching plans to make their own movie.