Sunday, January 17, 2010

We are wild animals

I have been blessed lately that every film I have released my sweaty dollars to recently has been gorgeous, rich, and deep in reflective fodder. If I wasn’t lazy, and busy with other things, I would write lengthy appreciations of them all. As it is, I just want to meander for a moment on a theme that emerges from them despite differing genres, mediums and what not. So without further ado, here are some thoughts on recent theatre excursions that all left me feeling enriched rather than only distracted.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox. This is a glorious and unique visual spectacle incorporating every animating technique there is. It takes a sophisticated (in its own right) child’s tale, by master, Roald Dahl, and imbues it with all of Wes Anderson’s charms—understated wit, an element of surrealism, awkward spaces, some poignant existentialism, and a genius use of sound and music.

Mr. Fox is a chicken thief, arrogant and cheeky and in love with his own cleverness, that is, up until his mate announces her pregnancy. The inevitable settling down occurs, and Mr. Fox does a fine job of being a father and husband, yet is unsatisfied with his life, and longs for things that are more true to his nature.

Throughout the film, even as events get more complicated, Mr. Fox maintains a maxim, and underpins all his ideas with the bold statement “we are wild animals”. It’s a lament and a call to arms. A plea and a definitive motto to change the way the characters conduct themselves. It is difficult not to question a parallel here. The animals in the film are sedate, middleclass sub-urban types, with civil jobs, conservative clothing, and all the trappings of civilization. And yet, our hero longs for his animal nature. He longs for a simpler existence that makes more sense to him. Mr. Fox is a buffoon, and does not make sound plans despite his charms, and yet, by the end of the film, he wins over his fellow animals with his own modern compromise to being a wild animal.

Avatar. I grew up on James Cameron, and his allegories about technology, society and the military forces that support empires. His new film, while surpassing all others visually, in creating a living breathing alien world that leaves your mouth hanging open, is a continuation of themes he has pursued throughout his career. Avatar utilizes all the classic tropes of myth. A hero from afar, the heroes journey of growth and discovery. Transformation. Prophecy. Reconnection with nature.

Our heroes journey takes him from being human, to being animal. He leaves his uniform and machines behind to live in a body with a tail and keen sense of smell and hearing, and to live in the jungle. Once he is accepted into the tribe, he is told, in no uncertain terms, “we’ll see if we can cure you of your insanity”. And here we have the whole film.

The bad guys aren’t evil, they’re nuts. They live in a psychotic break from reality and are isolated from everything meaningful. The corporate face says to his people, in frustration, “we don’t have anything they want.” And there it is. All the trappings and comforts of wealth and civilization mean nothing to the beings of Pandora. Everything we have achieved and hold dear, and can think of to offer to trade for a mineral beneath their soil amounts to nothing to the Naa’vi. so much for economics.

Our hero, enters the story a cripple with lifeless legs, who wishes more than anything, in Pinnochio fashion, to be whole. His adventures on Pandora make him whole again by teaching him that it wasn’t his legs that held him back from being whole. In essence, our hero renounces his humanness to embrace his animalness.

The Princess And The Frog. I'm not a big fan of Disney, by any means, but I have to say, this one harkened back to the look and feel of films from 40-60 years ago. Gone are the incongruous references to pop culture and other self-referential nonsense meant to amuse adults while disconnecting everyone from the story. And gone are the ugly angular drawings of modern fare. I am reluctant to say it, but this was Disney magic.

Unlike many animated stories, rather than simply having anthropomorphic animals, our heroes are humans, transformed into animals and for both the hero(the girl) and the sidekick(the prince) the way they both overcome their shortcomings and finally achieve valuable things in their life, is through animal experience. Towards the climax of the film, you wondered if they were going to remain frogs—as a happy ending.

And like the animal world that we try and pretend doesn’t exist, and certainly shield our children from (inexplicably), the danger in this story is palpable. Our motley band of heroes, despite praying to the stars, are at risk, and one dies before the end of the film.

This may sound strange, but I was so overjoyed, sitting in the darkened theatre with my daughter, to see that the villain was scary, and the images of his supernatural world were frightening, and that he was a true villain and snuffed out one of the heroes. I don’t know what kind of world we want lie to our children about, or how that gives them the emotional experiences that will prepare them for adulthood, but just like Grimm’s tales, this film allows children to explore different spaces and states of mind in a fairly safe place to learn from. I'll take film trauma over film pablum everyday of the week, thank you very much.

Fairy tale or not, the humans in this tale only achieve the day by regaining their animal senses.

Where The Wild Things Are. One of the most turbulent times in life is a very specific moment in childhood when a person individuates. The passage from being a child, where everything is simply related to one’s own perspective and needs, to the realization that one is separate from others is chaotic and painful. Suddenly there is a pandemonium of individuals and needs in conflict with each other and the child begins to see his own role in the tempest.

I can’t think of anyone who could have done this better than Spike Jonze. This is not an easy film, or a feel good film. It is difficult and distressing and confusing. I hope it becomes a classic. I hope teachers show it to children in the classroom and let them ask difficult questions.

The visual image we are given of this terrible yet necessary journey, is Monster Island, populated by creatures representing various aspects of emotion. The emotions are raw, powerful and in conflict, and so are the creatures, each formed from amalgams of different animals.

The important thing to remember in this film, is that the boy does not go anywhere—this is not the Neverending Story, this is the adult version of the Wizard of Oz. Carol, and Ira and Judith and all the rest are parts of the boy’s psyche that he is trying to sort out. It is wild, and chaotic and traumatic and painful, and terribly frightening. And along with individuating, the boy has to contend with reconciling his wild animal nature with his humanness and social nature.

There really is nothing brief to say about this film. I would say, if you watch one film from 2009, watch this one. If you are only going to watch two films from 2009, watch this one twice.


I have noticed a trend in the last decade, in childrens films, that there is an increasing criticism of modern life, and a growing theme of ecological realities. As well, I have noticed a re-embracing of the warmest sense of our Darwinian nature—that we are primates, an animal, on one branch of a tree connected to all the other animals in the world. We are no masters of the world, despite our destructive capabilities, and we are hardly stewards either. It remains to be seen whether these informing myths of our modern age will shape the direction our children go in, but the truth remains, animals find their niche within the greater biosphere, or else they vanish. We are wild animals; I wish we could accept that as good enough.

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