My Quote Unquote Fantastic Introduction
If you’ve read my biog – look, over there on the right of the page – you’ll see that I occasionally introduce films at Derby QUAD (www.derbyquad.co.uk), my home-town’s impressive arts centre.
Since I go to the bother of preparing a speech every time – I’m far too scared to go freestyle – I figured I might as well post them here for posterity (with kind thanks to the QUAD for giving me permission to do so).
In fact, my intros probably read better than they sound; I’m still new to this public speaking lark, so I tend to think as a writer. Fortunately, the glare in the QUAD’s auditorium means I’m saved the ignominy of seeing my audiences gradually nod off as I witter on.
Anyhow…here’s the first one I did, way back in October. Can you work out the film from the clue in the blog title? Go on, guess. Alternatively, if you can’t be arsed, you can read what it is in the next paragraph…
FANTASTIC MR FOX – introduction Tues 27th October, 2009
Good evening. It’s fantastic to see you all here tonight. I wasn’t sure how many would show up at 8.30 on a Tuesday night, to watch an animated kids’ film about a family of foxes. However… this isn’t just any family. It’s a marriage between Roald Dahl, a giant of children’s literature, and Wes Anderson, one of American cinema’s most distinctive filmmakers, so maybe it isn’t all that surprising.
Roald Dahl, of course, is an author with a long and fascinating relationship with the movies. In fact, he got his big break on the small screen, providing stories and writing teleplays for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology series in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That brought him to the attention of film producers, and he wrote the screenplays for James Bond movie You Only Live Twice and kids’ classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, before his breakthrough novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, became a big-budget Hollywood musical, retitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Dahl’s work for Hitchcock – and the later British TV series Tales of the Unexpected – was strictly for adults, full of macabre, mischievous twists. But even when writing for children, he hardly stinted on the dark humour or the cruel and unusual punishments. You only have to read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with its systematic torture of the horrible prize winners, or watch the evil Child Catcher, to realise that.
And it’s that subversive streak that has made Dahl a natural choice for some big-name directors not normally associated with children’s films. Nic Roeg, the outrageous, avant-garde director of Performance and Don’t Look Now, made a film of Dahl’s The Witches that’s one of the most frightening, visceral kids’ films ever made. Danny DeVito’s cartoonishly violent adaptation of Matilda dispenses with Disney-style family values to suggest a world where smart children are forever at war with ineffectual adults. Tim Burton then remade Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as one of his trademark oddball, pop-Gothic fantasies. What’s impressive is how each of these films is unmistakably the work of their director, but all maintain Dahl’s skewed worldview.
Even so, there shouldn’t be much to link a Texan hipster like Wes Anderson to the traditional, Welsh Roald Dahl. But Dahl’s imagination travels, and I’m sure like many of you here, Anderson grew up with Dahl’s stories. Put simply, he’s a fan – which is vital if you want to make a film of Dahl, because you first have to impress his widow that the source material will be respected – and by all accounts Felicity Dahl is a fiercely protective gatekeeper of her husband’s legacy. So it’s worth nothing that, not only did she grant Anderson the rights to Fantastic Mr Fox, but she allowed him and co-writer Noah Baumbach to work on the script in Dahl’s own home.
Wes Anderson’s connection with Dahl – and Mr Fox in particular – will be obvious if you’ve ever seen one of his films. Anderson creates extraordinarily stylised tragi-comedies, set in a hyperreal, off-kilter universe populated by eccentric, almost grotesque characters. His heroes are dreamers and misfits with crazy ambitions – in his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket, a clueless gardener is determined to become a thief. In his critical breakthrough, 1998’s Rushmore, a teenager goes to extraordinary lengths to try and woo his schoolteacher. These characters live in their own heads, and when we watch an Anderson film, it feels like we’re inside Anderson’s head. His shots are precisely arranged, often square-on as if characters are speaking directly to us. The frame is always full of astonishing visual detail, with décor, colour and costumes synthesised to reflect the characters’ state of mind.
The biggest theme of Anderson’s movies is to ask how such characters can possibly live alongside their loved ones. His most famous film, 2001’s Oscar-nominated The Royal Tenenbaums, concerns a neglectful father returning home to make amends with his estranged children. His most recent film, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, is about three brothers, grieving after the death of their father and trying to reconnect by sharing a holiday in India. [As an aside, it’s worth nothing that Fantastic Mr Fox’s co-writer Noah Baumbach, is a director in his own right, whose films The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding are black comedies about the problems facing families.]
So it’s no surprise that Fantastic Mr Fox is yet another variation on this theme. Dahl’s slim story concerns the feud between the eponymous Mr Fox, chicken-thief extraordinaire, and the three awful farmers he steals from. In Anderson’s expanded version, Mrs Fox desperately wants her husband to settle down so the family can be safe…but how can a fox deny its predatory nature? Stealing chickens is what Mr Fox does!
So there’s nothing unusual in Anderson’s story choice, except – perhaps – that he’s made a film for kids. The criticism most often levelled at Anderson is that his whimsical sensibility favours the childlike – or the childish – over true maturity. Critic Steve Rose has suggested that Anderson, just turned 40, is “running back to the security of the playpen” by making Fantastic Mr Fox. By harking back to a childhood favourite, Anderson can stave off the passage of time. The more cynically minded might suggest more mercenary objectives. After all, Pixar has proved that the best kids’ films can make the most money and get the best reviews. Is Anderson simply out to make a sure-fire hit?
But I think there’s something else to consider. In 1996, animator Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, made a stop-motion version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. In 2004, when Anderson was making his film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, he needed to add animated sea creatures into the mix. It was Selick he turned to. Now he’s made an entire film using Selick’s hand-crafted methods, starring a cast of three-inch high figurines.
Why has Anderson chosen such as old-fashioned, two-dimensional format as stop-motion? The big story this year is 3D: Up, Monsters Vs Aliens and James Cameron’s forthcoming Avatar are all promising a new kind of immersive cinema experience. Henry Selick, originally scheduled to reunite with Anderson on Mr Fox, decided to make a 3D film, Coraline, instead. Even Spielberg and Peter Jackson are jumping on the bandwagon for their film version of Tintin. What’s Anderson playing at? If recent reports are to be believed, Anderson was so committed to the retro look he wanted on Fantastic Mr Fox, that he infuriated his animators by refusing to allow them to use modern techniques.
Interestingly, though, he’s not alone. One of his peers, the similarly kooky Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, has also turned to children’s literature. Jonze’s new film is based on Maurice Sendak’s classic kids’ tale, Where The Wild Things Are, and features a cast encased in oversized furry animal costumes. That two acclaimed directors have shunned the synthetic backdrops of CGI for a more organic, lo-fi vibe, feels very deliberate. By using old-fashioned methods, Anderson and Jonze are proving that there are alternative – but no less rewarding – challenges still available, and that it’s possible for a live-action director to experiment and still make a film so unique and unmistakable that nobody else could have made it.
Looking at the trailer and making-of footage for Fantastic Mr Fox, I’m hopeful that Anderson has met those challenges. His live-action films have shown a fetish for stylisation; what could be more stylised than stop-motion, where the sets and characters have to be meticulously crafted and where every frame has to be manually manipulated into place over and over again, thousands of times? At the same time, Anderson has always favoured the lived-in feel of shooting on location, the sense that reality can be bent to his vision. That’s impossible to achieve with animation, but he’s found an ingenious compromise by recording the dialogue live, in real farmyard locations, rather than – as is usual – in a studio recording booth.
That organic feel should help to propel the energy of a typically rich Anderson cast. It includes regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, the three actors most associated with him, but Anderson has raised his game by inviting two of cinema’s finest actors, George Clooney and Meryl Streep, to play Mr and Mrs Fox. Both have form in quirky animation: Streep played a naughty schoolgirl in The Simpsons; Clooney played a gay dog in South Park – so I think they’ll feel right at home playing foxes in Anderson’s strange world. Best of all, Anderson has persuaded Jarvis Cocker, possibly the finest songwriter of his generation, to write and sing a silly hoedown with nonsense lyrics.
Dahl, Anderson, stop-motion animation, Streep, Clooney and Jarvis Cocker. That sounds like the recipe to a fantastic movie for me – enjoy.