The Auteur Series: Wes Anderson

Cover of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Cover of The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Because of all the buzz about Wes Anderson in recent months (due to his exceptionally well-received film Moonrise Kingdom), I think it is high time for a retrospective look at his adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Fantastic Mr. Fox – a film that, prior to Moonrise Kingdom, was second only to Anderson’s Rushmore in terms of critical acclaim.

Fantastic Mr. Fox works on so many levels. First, it stays faithful in spirit to Dahl’s simple story of a wily and well-spoken fox outwitting three wicked farmers. The humor is dry. The animals are imbued with far more humanity than the humans. Family, community, and resourcefulness triumph.

And yet Wes Anderson has at the same time shaped Dahl’s story into something wholly his own. Building on the infrastructure of Dahl’s story, Anderson adds his own beginning and ending, fleshes out the characters, adds new ones, and infuses the whole romp with myriad minute details in signature Anderson fashion. While still keeping much of the dialogue and action the same, Anderson suffuses the story with the themes his fans have come to expect: awkward family relationships (often rife with rivalries), strained marriages, estranged fathers, precocious children, and childlike adults. And it goes without saying that Anderson manages to infuse into each beautifully stop-motion animated scene his characteristic framing, pacing, music, and warm colors and textures.

While full of enough colorful detail, hilarious animal capers, and thrilling close escapes to keep kids engrossed, Fantastic Mr. Fox has just as much (perhaps more) to offer to the adult viewer. This is a remarkable children’s adaptation in that, instead of the usual stripping down and padding up with fart jokes and fluffy action that most children’s adaptations undergo, Anderson’s adaptation instead  builds upon and gives endless new layers of enjoyment to Dahl’s story, but in a way that still feels warm and true to the classic book.

Anderson’s films are well-known – and often mocked by his detractors – for their recurrent themes, actors, and indie stylings. Yet his two most recent films – Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom – seem to show that Anderson does best when he returns to the terrain of one of his earliest, and still most critically acclaimed, films: Rushmore. Wes Anderson knows how to capture a child’s story, whether it be in the form of a beloved children’s classic, or an awkward and reminiscent coming of age story.

It is almost as if he is coming into his own.

The Auteur Series

As I studied film in college, I became fascinated with auteurs and their distinctive—often critically acclaimed—bodies of work. More recently, as I have started to focus more particularly on films for and about children, I’ve been delighted to notice a trend in many auteur’s work. Very many of these directors, at one point or another, make a film for or about children. Quite often, these films are based on beloved children’s books. Some directors, such as Hayao Miyazaki, seem to focus almost exclusively on children’s films. Others don’t necessarily make children’s films or book adaptations, but instead create mature works that feature or center on an especially cognizant, intuitive child.

Perhaps such works are the result of these auteurs, in infusing so much of their identity into their overall oeuvre, realizing that their childhoods hold just as much (if not more) of a place in the formation of their identity as any of the other elements that make them—and their corresponding films—unique. Perhaps they want to pay tribute to a book that shaped them in their childhoods. Perhaps they just want to have a children’s movie under their belt. Perhaps, as they mellow towards the ends of their careers, they want to have something to show to their grandkids.

Perhaps it is because they realize that every person’s childhood, whether they realize it or not, is at the core of who they are, and a good children’s movie can therefore speak to almost anyone on a fundamental level.

In any case, I am going to start an ongoing series of reviews on many of these films, both old and new. A lot of these films round out an auteur’s oeuvre in surprising ways.  Many are films everyone has seen but no one realized who directed. Too many are hidden gems.

So, somewhere between April showers and May flowers, I will commence the list with a movie I grew up watching with my family every spring:

The Secret Garden (1993) – Agnieszka Holland

Of the umpteen adaptations of this book, this one, in my opinion, is the one that is by far the most worth seeing. I remember being filled with wonder every time I saw this growing up. The film, instead of losing its magic as I have grown older, has only become richer with each progressive viewing and after having read the book.

This 1993 film is directed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who is currently receiving acclaim for her most recent film, In Darkness. Although I have not seen many of Holland’s other works, I do know enough about them to know that The Secret Garden fits into her general oeuvre in an interesting way. Many of her films have a theme of children growing up under the weight of a unique crisis of identity (Europa, Europa; Olivier, Olivier; perhaps even In Darkness). The classic story of sour and orphaned Mary Lennox coming alive with the secret garden that she and Dickon nurse back to health, and of her cousin Colin Craven learning to stand and walk on his own two feet (physically and symbolically), provides ample fodder for themes Holland seems to return to.

Although some characters from the book are dropped or condensed, and the beginning rendered much more dramatic, the essence of the book is here, and it is in many ways augmented by Holland’s hauntingly beautiful treatment. I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t seen this film yet, but suffice it to say that Mary is perhaps a more well-developed character in this film than she is in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic.

But Mary is not the only facet of the story that blossoms in the transition from page to screen in this film. The adult characters are not as peripheral or one-dimensional as they so often are in children’s films, but are instead well-rounded, nuanced characters that are every bit as dynamic as the children. (How could you expect less with Maggie Smith playing Mrs. Medlock?) All the most captivating details of the book are rendered perfectly. Misselthwaite Manor is full of secrets and passageways, and the Yorkshire Moors are fiercely beautiful and mysterious, captured with breathtaking cinematography. Nature has as much of a role in this film as any character, often lingered upon by the camera or revealed in time-lapse photography. The film wonderfully shows how the annual miracle of spring and the magic of discovering it play a profound role in the children’s blooming with the garden.

As this is one of my all-time favorite films, I could go on about it for a long time. Instead, let me simply conclude by saying that The Secret Garden is beautiful in every way, both complementing its original source and serving as an exceptional introduction to Holland’s own body of films.

Image found here.