Scribes put kids first in tykes’ tales

'Fox,' 'Wild' auteurs focus on grown-up issues

The best children’s movies have always had something for adults too, from Warner Bros.’ wisecracking Looney Toons to “Shrek’s” scatological humor to the sophisticated storylines and sumptuous visuals of the Disney/Pixar empire. But the rule has always been “kids first.”

Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are challenging that assumption, or at least blurring the once-bright line between movies made for kids and those made for their parents, with two films based on revered children’s classics.

“When we started ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox,’ I simply thought of it as a movie for children because it was a book with talking animals,” says Anderson of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book about a fox who gives up his safe domesticated life to go back to the thrill of poaching chickens.

“But then (co-writer) Noah Baumbach and I set to work writing the script, and we never again thought about who we were writing it for. We just wrote whatever we thought was going to be the funniest, the most interesting, the most compelling for the story. In the end I think it is as much for children as it is for adults and literally no less for one than the other.”

For Jonze the idea of doing an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” the story of a boy who escapes to an island inhabited by fantastical creatures, had been rolling around in his head since he’d met the book’s creator 14 years ago. “But I’d always shied away from it because I couldn’t figure out what I could bring to it that wouldn’t be adding something extraneous,” he says.

Finally it was advice from Sendak that helped Jonze with the breakthrough he needed.

“He said that if you want to make a movie of the book, you have to make the movie of what the book is to you.”

For Jonze the book had never been so much a children’s story as a story about what it is like to be a child.

“As soon as I had that idea, everything just fell into place,” recalls Jonze. “The movie became about trying to represent the feelings you have when you’re 9 years old and struggling to navigate the sometimes confusing and scary emotional landscape of the world around you.”

Jonze chose acclaimed author Dave Eggers to help him navigate that world because “Dave just knows how to write children,” says Jonze. “He’s got a deft touch about humanizing them and making sure they are represented as real people.” This was most important for Sendak, too. “He didn’t want us to soften it or pander to children in any way. He wanted us to make this thing personal. He was the opposite of what you’d expect from the protective author.”

While Jonze and Eggers had the benefit of having Sendak as their sounding board, Anderson and Baumbach tried to stay as close to the spirit of Dahl, who passed away in 1990, by actually moving into his house and studio to write the script. “The book is short and, at some point, we had to expand it, so we just sort of shifted our focus onto Dahl,” says Anderson. “Everything we added we added with the question, does this feel like Dahl? That was our only goal every step of the way, which was kind of a luxury, because I love Dahl, so it was a chance to sort of pretend to be Dahl.”

Ultimately, both films became a blending of the talents of their original authors and their newfound interpreters, giving fans of both old and new something to wonder upon and generations of children past and present plenty to discuss. Says Jonze of his relationship with Sendak, “It was like the passing of the baton.”

For Anderson it was something new and wonderful too. “I’ve never had a 9-year-old come over to me and discuss his views on my film afterwards,” says Anderson. “I like this new segment of the audience.”