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Up in the air with flying foxes and less-than-fantastic goats
What’s the best thing about an11-hour flight? It can’t be the dodgy movies on the in-flight entertainment system, can it? (I once failed to go to sleep on a flight that showed Marley & Me and Paul Blart: Mall Cop on all the screens. The lambs have barely stopped screaming on that one, Clarice.) Well, yes, it can, on one of those snazzy new planes where even down in Economy Class, with all the third class Oirish having a fun time before the plane hits the iceberg, you have a choice of oodles of films, music and games. And since Who Wants to be a Millionaire? loses its interest after a handful of games, especially when there’s no oily showmaster-wala with an Indian accent to foil your attempts to get the money and the girl, I decided to dedicate at least some of my flying time to watching first The Men Who Stare at Goats and then The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Men, goats, intense stares… George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey – what could go wrong? Well, it’s not so much what went wrong; it’s more that way too little went right. The film is a brilliantly cast neat idea spun out over 1 1/2 hours, which makes for a great trailer (minus Ewan McGregor’s horrid American accent) and a decidedly mediocre film. It isn’t really worth saying all that much more about it, except to bleat mournfully.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though? I’m still surprised to say that I genuinely enjoyed it. I’ve had problems with the two Wes Anderson films I’d seen, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s a great aesthete, but his style got in my way of enjoying both movies to a large extent. The problem is that the films and their characters are so stylised, in their looks, behaviour and neurotic quirks, that they feel wholly static – so when the plot contrives to make them tragic, I don’t buy it. The pathos turns into mawkishness, and when it kind of works in spite of the artifice, it’s largely due to the borrowed emotions of the songs Anderson chooses. To my mind, characters can only become tragic if there’s the illusion that they are free, or at least struggling to free themselves, from the master puppeteer that is Fate, the Script and/or the Director – Anderson’s characters have often struck me as being puppets at the mercy of a master stylist who doesn’t have freedom anywhere on his palette.
I suspect that what makes Mr. Fox work for me is this: animated films are stylised to begin with. They are entirely created. And ironically that makes Mr. Fox feel less constricted by Anderson – whereas real people in a live-action film are made less unreal by the artifice that seems to be his favourite stylistic choice, the animated foxes, moles, possums and badgers, not to forget farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean), are infused with humanity, for want of a better word. The style becomes a part of the whole rather than being the whole and thereby threatening to suffocate both the actors and the characters.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is very clearly a Wes Anderson film – the look, feel, costumes, even the character setup (father-son conflict anyone?) feel familiar… but by sidestepping live-action for once, Anderson’s made the first film that, being entirely artificial due to being animated, feels real to me.
And it’s got this lovely scene with Michael Gambon (as farmer Bean) and Petey, as played by Jarvis Cocker:
Chocolate-covered hobbits do Bollywood
I used to be a big Tim Burton fan. I greatly enjoyed his dark romanticism of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Batman Returns is probably my favourite Batman film. (Batman Begins does better action, but it lacks the inventiveness and the compelling relationships between characters such as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Michael Caine’s Alfred rules, though.) And even if Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick, it still oozed Burtonesque style from every semi-putrescent orifice. It had the Tim Burton soul.
Then came Mars Attacks!, a nice half-hour comedy stuck in a two-hour movie, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – a film that looked gorgeous (I never knew there were so many colours in grey before that movie) but had a meanness that hadn’t been in the previous films. The less said about Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the better. And Big Fish, even though lots of people liked it, always struck me as a smug, self-satisfied piece of schmaltz. It sides unequivocally with a self-infatuated, selfish boor who needs to stand at the centre of attention. (I very much saw where Billy Crudup’s character was coming from… Personally I would have strangled Daddy Storyteller in his sleep halfway through my childhood if I was him.) When I first saw the trailers for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was suspicious. Actually, no. I was turned off. I thought they looked loud, crude, tacky and tasteless. None of that weirdo “I’m a goth, please give me a hug” sweetness of the early films. In spite of liking Roald Dahl, I gave Charlie a wide berth.
Until they showed it on television last week. We watched it, expecting very little… but roughly five minutes into the film we both had silly grins on our faces. From the first scene, the snow swirling around the Warner Brothers logo and the strains of Danny Elfman’s orchestral score, it felt like the Tim Burton I’d come to love. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is by no means perfect, and there are moments that are too shrill for their own good. It’s also somewhat let down by an overly sentimental, almost Disney-ish streak of “Family matters”. But on the whole it gets the balance between quirkiness, whimsy and sentiment just right, helped along by the touching earnestness of the title character and an almost surreal, dark streak that comes from Willy Wonka, arguably one of Burton’s most troubled characters yet, and the Oompa Loompas.
Based on this movie, I can say that I’m again looking forward to the next film by Tim Burton for the first time in years.