Fantastic Mr Fox was the feature for Mannion Family Movie Night last night. Thumbs up all around. Gave me renewed appreciation for Wes Anderson’s other movies. Also made me wish he’d remake The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited with stop-action puppets.
Both movies were already puppet shows. Anderson is, at heart, I think, a puppetmaster. And that’s not a dismissal or a criticism. Anderson’s characters are stripped down to the essentials and present attitudes more than personalities, his plots are fabulous as in like the plots of fables, and his dialog is simplistic, mildly didactic, and gently moralistic. He’s not telling children’s stories but he tells his stories as if they were for children. I don’t mean he’s talking down to his audience. I think that what he’s doing is reminding his audiences of the basic delights of hearing and telling stories and trying to get them to pay attention to his stories with the same openness and wonder that they gave to the first stories they heard and loved.
So it’s not a surprise to hear in this Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross that Anderson loved the stories of Roald Dahl when he was a kid and that Fantastic Mr. Fox , the shortest and simplest of Dahl’s books, was his favorite and the book he’s taken everywhere with him since.
It was a surprise that Terry Gross had never read any of Dahl’s books before she saw Fantastic Mr Fox. I didn’t think it was possible to have turned 10 after 1964 and not have read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach by the time you’d turned 12. Turns out Gross is a little older than I thought and turned 10 a little too soon.
The good news for her is that Dahl’s stories, like all the best children’s stories, aren’t just for children. They are grown-up stories told in a way children can follow.
Which is what I was trying to say about Anderson’s puppet show-movies.
This is my favorite part of the interview though.
Anderson: I didn’t know what it was going to be like to make this movie [in stop-animation] when we started out. I sort of had this thought that I was going to [write] the script, and work on the sets, and sort of prepare the shots, and have this plan, and then hand over to a team of animators and they were going to hand me back a film a year later or something. I was going to put in an order for one Fantastic Mr Fox, according to these specifications, and they would send it back. That is not what happened.
It ends up being the most involving kind of filmmaking I’ve ever had anything to do with and very fun. But the thing you quickly realize is that everything that is going to go on camera has to be manufactured from scratch, everything has to be designed, and that means every little prop and every little moment is going to have a lot of thought go into it, and that’s an opportunity, but it’s not going to take care of itself. Nothing’s going to just be discovered, like stumbling across a location.
Gross: You have to create the bodies of the animals, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in, the street they live on, the sunrise, the sunset, the ground beneath their feet, you have to create everything?
Anderson: Yes. It’s rare you get the chance to say, “I have an idea for a cloud…”
That might explain why I’d like to see Anderson’s stop-action version of The Darjeeling Limited. An India designed according to his specifications might have been a better backdrop to his story than the real India.
Interesting that the movie adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, which is very good, is also stop-action. That was produced by Tim Burton but not directed by him. Burton did direct the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Didn’t work out so well. Burton is a problematic choice for adapting Dahl. Burton specializes in nightmares for adults. Dahl took children’s nightmares and turned them inside out to make them into funny daydreams. The nightmare is always still there, but it’s held to the shadows. To have shadows, though, you need sunlight, and Burton doesn’t seem to know there is such a thing as the sun. Anybody seen Alice in Wonderland yet? Can you see it? It looks awfully dark, and I mean that both ways.