This year has been pretty astounding for animated children’s films. Up and Ponyo will appear on many a top ten list, and even Coraline and 9 were visually interesting. And so far the adult films of the year haven’t been so bad, either. Movies like The Hurt Locker and Precious are compelling examples. But then there are the somewhere-in-between films. And these are the movies that have most impressed me in 2009. Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Mary and Max must give marketers the biggest headaches. All three look like children’s films, two are based on children’s source material, and all three have dark, adult themes and humor that would not only be over a kid’s head, but entirely inappropriate.
Where the Wild Things Are
This is the film that seems to have been most misinterpreted. I’ve heard many stories about people who took their kids to go see this, and then had to leave half way through when their kids were bored/crying. Where the Wild Things Are is not meant for children. And that confused the majority of the movie-going public. In a market where the merit of an adaptation is based on how well it represents the book, this one has a tendency to disappoint. Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze take the story places Sendak never meant for it to go, but in my book, that’s never a bad thing.
I was just impressed. The voice acting was affecting (Gandolfini should be nominated for an Oscar, honestly), the costumes were a wonderful throwback, and the cinematography is both bleak and beautiful. A movie meant for adults that remember how hard it is to be a kid, Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t have as much of a built in audience as studios may have originally expected.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
In this film Wes Anderson gives us a bizarre mix of slapstick childlike humor and dry, typical Anderson one-liners. Lines like “I love you, but I never should have married you,” might not quite work when the next scene consists of animated rodents dodging bullets. But the mixture is, at least, interesting. Especially when we’ve been seeing a lot of the same stuff from this director (stuff I love, by the way, but the motifs are starting to look a little too familiar from film to film). The adult jokes tend to hit their mark while the Roald Dahl inspired plot is pretty delightful.
Again, Mr. Fox is a throwback to old animation styles. Mouse and the Motorcycle style puppetry mixes claymation with other stop motion. Even when the plot might get boring to an adult audience, the animation is always fascinating to watch. Adult themes like the suppression of creativity in a domestic environment will definitely go over a child’s head completely, and the goofy plot isn’t enough to sustain the film. Luckily for Anderson (and studios), he has enough of a reputation to avoid the marketing nightmare that the next film would come up against.
Mary and Max
So far, this is my favorite film of the year. It opened at Sundance to very pumped crowds, but has yet to get a U.S. release date. Which is sad, but makes perfect sense. This is a film that looks like a children’s movie. It looks as silly as Wallace and Gromit, for example, but contains much more adult themes. Suicide, death, depression, alcoholism, and obesity haunt the movie. But they also make poop jokes. Like the other two in-betweeny films, Mary and Max is not an “adult film.” There is no swearing, nudity, violence, etc., and all three films are rather heartwarming (especially this one). The themes have everything to do with childhood, but less to do with a child audience.
I think what I like most about all three of these movies is their awkwardness. Since they don’t quite fit into an age group they bounce all over the place. They don’t seem to care about pleasing a certain group definitively. So when it comes to awards, numbers, and even release dates, they struggle. Childhood is messy. Sometimes we’re forced into adult situations too early, sometimes we hang onto our youth too hard. All three of these films successfully, I think, explore this.