Saturday, April 3, 2010

Two Children's Films

Lately, I've been kind-of getting in tune with my inner child, as I finally picked up two very different, but equally fascinating kids films. However, the films by no means limit their ambitions as a result of making children their main audience - which is really the key to making something worthwhile in that sub-genre. Instead, each one is a marvelous feat of imagination that is definitely worth any film fan's attention.

The Red Balloon (1956)
Director: Albert Lamorisse
Country: France

I begin with a true classic of French cinema that I was woefully late in discovering - but better late than never. Especially for this film, a brief, eloquent fable about a Parisian boy (played by the director's son Pascal) and a round, red balloon he finds tied to a post. Right away, he becomes quite attached to it, but it isn't until after it is set adrift out his window and it floats back to him that boy and balloon begin to forge an actual friendship. As it follows Pascal through Paris and to and from school, it draws attention and causes mischief while acting as a sort of guardian to the boy.

Lamorisse and cinematographer Edmond Séchan make great use of the Ménilmontant neighborhood where the story takes place. Pascal and his brightly-colored friend wander through a world of everyday urban activities and sights - one that, in contrast with both the fairy tale quality of the narrative and the balloon's vibrant red hue, often appears quite drab, dirty and grey. As a result, The Red Balloon has a sort of New Wave vibe in the way the camera captures shops, people, the classic green Paris buses and worn buildings in true street cinema fashion, making it not all that dissimilar from Jean-Pierre Melville's crackling crime caper Bob le flambeur, which was released in the same year and adopts a similarly astute perspective of the Montmartre portion of the city.

The simplistic nature of the story and characters allow the viewer a fair bit of freedom when it comes to interpreting what the meaning or moral of the tale exactly is. To me, the balloon serves as a symbol of something like hope, happiness or (my personal favorite) a particular passion that a person, much like Pascal, would discover, seek comfort from and protect. Throughout the film, people react to the balloon with annoyance and cruelty. Some of them are adults who find the balloon's presence disruptive or distracting, but a more direct threat arises in the second half of the film in the form of a roving gang of bullies who chase Pascal and seek to take the balloon from him. To me, they particularly represent hurtful forces of the outside world who, stricken with jealousy, seek to destroy that which they cannot have.

So, like terrible stray dogs, they hunt Pascal and his balloon through the alleys of Paris, leading to what has to be one of the saddest moments ever made for a children's film. Yet it is very soon after followed up by a gloriously cathartic ending that simultaneously makes me a little teary every time I see it (especially thanks to Maurice Leroux's score, which is consistently excellent throughout the entire film) and makes me wonder if the makers of Pixar's Up were at all influenced by the film.

I'm so glad I finally got around to watching The Red Balloon. There is apparently a sequel to it entitled Stowaway in the Sky (or Le voyage en ballon, which I personally prefer to the English title) from 1960, but, like my buddy Chris MaGee who refuses to watch Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire follow-up Faraway, So Close!, I think I'll probably be avoiding it as a sign of respect to the original. I am, however, very interested in seeing some of Lamorisse's other works, among them White Mane, which got a Region 1 DVD release alongside The Red Balloon from Janus Films not too long ago. In the meantime, The Red Balloon will be treasure enough.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
Director: Wes Anderson
Country: United States of America

Upon watching Fantastic Mr Fox, I was so relieved not only to see just now nicely Wes Anderson adapted his usual style to a younger audience, but also that he had continued with the winning streak he had picked up on with The Darjeeling Limited after the lack-luster The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Like that film, Fantastic Mr Fox was co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, a team that has redeemed itself fully for the crimes of the former (too broad a canvas, not enough focus on character, humor too heavy-handed, tonal shifts too drastic and poorly handled) with the success of the latter. In fact, it is interesting to pick up on the similarities between Life and Fox, most prominent among them being that each has as its protagonist an ego-driven patriarch who yearns to relive his former glories and reassert his legendary reputation through one last great adventure. Both films also feature remarkably supportive wives, elaborate plans of sabotage, accompanying stunts and explosives, (figurative) sibling rivalries (Klaus and Ned; Ash and Kristofferson) and a final team rescue mission. Yet, thankfully, Fox follows Darjeeling's example by keeping the film's main focus placed on the characters and their individual problems.

Fantastic Mr Fox even carries over Darjeeling's excellent use of detail and minor elements - a trait common in Anderson's films, but utilized in relation to the story and characters particularly well in his last two films. In Darjeeling, there are so many "little things" that tell you something about the characters and ricochet throughout the whole movie (and Hotel Chevalier, its accompanying short), some of them being Jack's Parisian music boxes, the Voltaire #6 perfume, the ever-prominent luggage, Jack's writing and the character of Brendan (played by Anderson's amigo Wally Wolodarsky). Fox similarly carries many such small yet integral reoccurring details, including Mrs Fox's paintings, the fate of Mr Fox's tail, the minor character of Agnes and, of course, Whack-Bat, probably the best fictitious sport since Quidditch.

Anderson handles all of these details very well in the film - and the fact that they are presented in animated form makes them all the more enjoyable. Anderson's tendency towards neatness and detail pays off quite nicely in stop motion, often making a world so intricately designed (kudos to the production team and animators) that I often wished the film would slow down a bit just so my eyes could take more of it in. On a related note, the film could have kept going on for two hours longer than it did, so fun and engaging is its whole sense of pace and style. Capping it all off is a superb cast, with excellent voice work provided by main players George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Anderson (Wes' brother, who played Kristofferson), Wolodarsky (as the absolutely hilarious possum Kylie) Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson. Yet there are also quite a few neat bit players who provided their voices: Brian Cox, Roman Coppola, Adrien Brody, Jarvis Cocker, chef Mario Batali and even Anderson himself as Weasel. For me, though, the guy who really stole the show was Michael Gambon as Bean, the third of the three mean farmers who go head-to-head with Mr Fox. He truly pulls off a great bit of voice work with his deliciously sinister English voice and such memorable lines as "That's just weak songwriting. You wrote a bad song, Petey!"

Like The Darjeeling Limited before it, Fantastic Mr Fox is a film I just know I will give repeat viewings for some time to come, probably with rewarding results each time. Simply, it works as a kid's movie, it works as a Wes Anderson movie - it just works. And yes, it is quite fantastic.

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