Fantastic Mr. Fox
book: Roald Dahl, 1970
movie: Roald Dahl, Noah Baumbach, and Wes Anderson, 2009
#2, 2009 Skandies

Thomas McCarthy, Bob Peterson, and Pete Docter, 2009
#4, 2009 Skandies

Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick, 2009
#18, 2009 Skandies

My current consulting gig has really hammered home the truth of Pattern 25, that movies tend to be experience delivery systems more than they are stories. There have been occasions when I've written a rough draft of a scene and been told to go back and try it again, covering the same ground but this time catering to Males 13–24. There are lists of elements that must and must not appear. I've found it rather strange to write for people who like stuff I don't. I'm taking scenes, making them (to my mind) significantly worse, and watching the reaction go from dubious to encouraging to ecstatic. Naturally, I'd prefer that the eventual script contain the versions that I consider good... but it's not for me.

Which makes me wonder what Skandies voters are thinking when they populate the Best Picture list with children's movies. It seems to me that there are several possibilities:

  • "This is great for children." Take something like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Ask me to judge its quality and I'd have to give it top marks: Fred Rogers contributed immensely to the emotional well-being of millions of children — if you haven't seen it, you've got to watch this clip of famously gruff Sen. John Pastore gradually realizing that he's in the presence of a saint — and certainly when I was a preschooler I watched the show religiously. Today? I doubt I could sit through it for more than a minute. I'm not four years old anymore. It's not for me.

  • "This is great, considering that it's for children." There are other programs that take into account the fact that parents wind up immersed in whatever it is their kids are watching, and try to give those parents a little bit of entertainment too. When Ernie suggests that Bert pretend to talk to an elephant on a banana, Bert's reply that "I'm just not emotionally secure enough to do this" is definitely phrased for the benefit of the adults watching. (As is his half of the conversation that ensues: "I'm about six foot two, blond hair... I don't think we should meet, no.") The thing is, a big part of what makes this funny is the fact that it's on Sesame Street. It's hilariously inappropriate to hear lines like these on a show that's mainly about teaching the alphabet. And because (unlike one of the poll workers in my precinct) I already have a pretty good handle on the alphabet, I don't actually watch Sesame Street.

  • "The existence of this work for children is great." This is pretty similar to the previous category, but take a look at this — it's a real Sesame Street segment in which the muppets sing a sarcastic multi-verse song about the danger and inconvenience of mass transit. Having spent most of 2001 complaining about the New York subway system, I think this thing is frickin' wonderful. But again, it's not like I listen to it on my MP3 player or anything. What I love about it is the simple fact that this was actually filmed and aired on the real show — it's an amazing cultural artifact. If it were a parody on Avenue Q or something, meh.

  • "This is great for the child in me." Sometimes you're exhausted or stressed out and it's nice to regress. Turn off higher brain functions and kick back with something lightweight but not stupid. At such times I usually watch old Frasier episodes on Youtube — I was so frazzled in the days leading up to the '08 election that I did almost nothing else — but, yes, every now and again I will read an old children's book. I can see how someone might watch a children's movie on the same principle.

And then of course there is the possibility that they actually don't have their Silly Rabbit alarms going off while they're watching and are enjoying these movies in the same manner as the other movies on the list. If so, we differ in that respect.

I could only get through about half an hour of Coraline, for instance. It seemed to be, primarily, a delivery system for animated spectacle that was of little interest to me, and secondarily, a story built around themes revelant to kids: dissatisfaction with the way they're being raised, etc. I'm already raised, so for me that ship has sailed. I recognize that in saying this I must sound like the people who complained that they couldn't enjoy Bad Machinery because "children and the school experience are decidedly external to me." I think the difference is that, even though John Allison says that he'd like kids to read Bad Machinery the same way he read Roald Dahl books when he was a kid, it nevertheless feels like it's being pitched more to readers in our own generation — there's a lot of "kids say the most goddamned things" humor that you need some distance from your own childhood to enjoy. Coraline is more for kids themselves, and while it might be great for them I got as much out of it as I'd get out of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Up I watched all the way through, and I did like it... the same way I like Sesame Street. A lot of "wow, I bet kids really love this — good job, filmmakers," a lot of "hey, that was a top-notch sequence considering that the filmmakers were working under the onerous constraint of having to make it work for all ages," a lot of "heh, that was an amusing line to slip into a kids' movie." If my future children want to watch this every day on their forehead-mounted hologram projectors, I will be pleased that their taste is that good. But I couldn't enjoy it the same way I'd enjoy a movie made for grown-ups.

Now, Fantastic Mr. Fox is something else again. It gradually became clear that it's not actually for kids, any more than that tribute CD of '90s alt bands doing covers of "Schoolhouse Rock" songs was. Like Pavement shambling through "No More Kings," this is a stunt — it's Wes Anderson taking a famous piece of kiddie lit and turning it into the same sort of thing he always does. (The Roald Dahl book is definitely for children — there's nothing in it for adults. There's practically nothing in it, period! It's all of 10,000 words, and goes like this: There's a fox who steals from farmers. The farmers decide to kill him. They try to dig him out of his hole, but he just digs deeper. But he and his family are starving, so he comes up with a plan: dig a tunnel to the farms and keep on stealing. The end. To the extent that there's a theme, it's twofold: one, the law must bow to the greater good, and two, respect Daddy for Daddy is competent and a good provider.) This movie feels to me like an absurdist version of a writing exercise. I often turn in scenes and get told, "Do it again, this time without dialogue" or "Do it again, this time set in public." Fantastic Mr. Fox is like taking a regular Wes Anderson movie and saying, "Do it again, this time with talking woodland creatures."

Thus we end up with awkward flirting teenagers mumbling "I like your ears" and "I like your spots" at each other. And on the one hand, it's like, if you think this is funny, then goddamn, are you ever gonna love The Flintstones — but then, really, that is itself the joke, right? A sort of postmodern "look at the absurdity of me cranking out the usual talking-animal jokes"? Maybe I'm giving Anderson too much credit. The thing is, I'm not really a fan of his work — again, I can see that it's good but it just doesn't do it for me. It's like, all right, it's wry, it's arch, it's witty, but it's not actually funny to me. I'm not really sure why. I mean, in theory, I feel like I should crack up at the bad guy coming out at the end of the obligatory musical number to protest, "That's just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!" Instead, just a smile. Mike D'Angelo writes that Fantastic Mr. Fox is "hard to beat, at least for those of us on its director's distinctive wavelength." I'm not, so just like with the actual kids' movies, it's not... well, you know the drill.

Maybe I'm just not emotionally secure enough for any of these.

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