Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is arguably the most memorable representation of childhood in cinema history—the film’s final freeze-frame being the perfect portrayal of adolescent uncertainty. In fact, I think that Roger Ebert correctly identified a common theme in much of Truffaut’s work: "the way young people grow up, explore themselves, and attempt to function creatively in the world." In recent years, a number of filmmakers—typically known for their more adult-oriented films—have been turning to children’s stories. Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are are among a number of contemporary children’s films that, like Truffaut’s work, seek to address the pains and joys of childhood onscreen.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox follows a family of foxes as they attempt to outwit three oddball farmers who are out for their blood. And while the film primarily focuses on Mr. Fox’s risky business, it also addresses his son Ash’s own adolescent difficulties. Because he’s small, he dresses as a makeshift superhero, and he struggles to compete athletically, both his father and his schoolmates label him ‘different.’
Like Anderson’s previous work, the film features a bold color palette, an eclectic soundtrack, and a dry sense of humor; but probably most significantly, the film shares a theme of familial reconciliation with his films like the The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. The father fox makes serious mistakes—so consumed with his own mid-life crisis that he fails to consider his son’s feelings and he ultimately jeopardizes the safety of his entire family. And while Mr. Fox ultimately overcomes these obstacles, it is not without making amends with and helping restore the confidence of his son Ash.
Spike Jonze’s film Where the Wild Things Are works with similar themes of adolescent angst and familial reconciliation. And like Jonze’s previous films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the film sprinkles fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic narrative. In an effort to escape conflict with his teenage sister and newly-dating mom, nine year-old Max escapes to the place where the wild things are. Here Max is forced to confront and cooperate with creatures that seem to represent the wild emotions with which he’s struggling. And at times, these creatures are cruel and frightening—indicative of the intense emotions experienced during childhood.
An often-voiced criticism of both of these films is that while being adaptations of beloved kids’ books, the films aren’t necessarily for children; instead—much like Truffaut’s work—these films are about childhood. And this may be due, in part, to the sensibility of the filmmakers. While more typical children’s films from studios like Disney or Dreamworks seem to be produced to appease their youth market, films from Truffaut and now Anderson and Jonze instead attempt to confront issues faced by youth—even if they’re less accessible and even sometimes disturbing. Though, I find this approach to be refreshing, and I'm eager to see how other films (Scorcese's upcoming adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for example) address this interesting subject. Characters like Ash and Max and Antoine Doinel resonate with audiences, young and old, because they embody the conflicted nature of childhood—the joys of romping through the forest and the pains of staring at an empty horizon.