Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Saturday, December 12, 2009

To The Fantastic Mr. Fox yesterday, a movie I'd been looking forward to. Gentle reader, it was so good that I'd have gone again tonight. Wes Anderson has only made one movie that I've disliked ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"-- what the hell was that?), and although "Bottle Rocket" is not something I feel an immediate need to see again any time soon, "Rushmore" and (especially) "The Royal Tenenbaums" are movies that have rewarded my repeated screenings. "Fox" is worthwhile on a number of levels: it is visually engaging, the way the best animation is; it contains several clever performances by its voice actors; and it is genuinely funny. I am not familiar with the Roald Dahl book-- I don't really like Roald Dahl, or the other movies that have been made of his stuff (although I liked Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka), but I suspect that Mr. Fox is more Anderson than Dahl. This is as it should be, I think. My Lawyers in Movies students startled me at the start of the semester when they pretty much all agreed that they prefer the book version of a story to the movie. I find that statement incredible, and a bit sad. Sometimes, certainly, a movie is a less satisfying experience than the book it is based on, but most of the time I'd say that it is simply a different experience.

There are those, and I've been among them, who argue that the cheesier the book, the better the movie. Examples might include "Gone With The Wind", "The Wizard of Oz", and "The Godfather". Proponents of this theory will tell you that "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is a pretty dreadful movie, but that "To Have and Have Not" is great. "Good Hemingway makes for a bad movie, but weak Hemingway makes a great movie," they'll tell you, overlooking the fact that "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is actually dreadful, and that "To Have and Have Not" has barely a shot glass worth of the novel. I am inclined to argue that what makes a good film adaptation is the extent to which the person watching the movie is prepared to accept the filmmaker's vision-- and I would submit that for the purposes of this discussion the filmmaker has to accept this as well. The successful approach is not, "How am I going to film this?" but rather, "How am I going to tell this story?" I'm no fan of hobbits, or movies about them, but Peter Jackson, it seems to me, made three pretty good movies because he understood that he needed to tell the story Tolkien told using techniques that Tolkien would never have used. People who are serious about Tolkien will tell you that the "Lord of the Rings" is "really" about Tolkien's linguistic scholarship, and his interest in incorporating his theories in that field into an imaginary world. Maybe so. Maybe that's why I find the books about as interesting as "The Wasteland"-- I'm not enough of a scholar to be in on the jokes. In any event a movie like that would be worse than the poor, maligned version of "The Great Gatsby" that Robert Redford mumbled his way through.

"Mr. Fox" is pleasingly exuberant, and seems to me to be an opening up of Wes Anderson's vision. It is the first time he has made a movie adapted from another source, but the themes-- family relationships, the ability of individuals to change, or work within their personal limitations, the importance of self-awareness and creativity-- are all things he has focused on in the past. One of the charming things about this movie is that these animals are distinctly animals. When they smile we see their teeth, when they eat, they eat ravenously. I liked every moment of this movie, and wished it was longer. I can't wait to see what Anderson does next.

UPDATE: Corrected to reflect the correct "Rings" director, per CLA's comment.

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