The Wild Child: A Fresh Look at the Pains and Joys of Childhood in Film

Curator's Note

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.


 Great way to start off the week, Benjamin!

I appreciate the point about how this adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are becomes a movie for adults via nostalgia, perhaps not only for the children's story and our own experiences of the book (and, in my case, the cassette recordings), but also for our "lost" childhoods more generally--as a way of grappling with the pain of that nostalgia. 

In addition, it's useful to think about the ways in which these films can resonate with children, as you suggest, since childhood is not as we remember it, nor is it in line with our mythologizing about it.

I would also be interested in a discussion of the ways in which boyhood and masculinity are figured in "the wild child", whereas narratives of girls' wildness almost invariably center on the changing body, lessons of (feminine) propriety, and "emerging" sexuality in (significantly?) more obvious ways.

as you write, these films are "about childhood" - yet are marketed as much to adults as they are to children.  i wonder if these films are representations of an adult need for self-exploration.  there was a piece in the nytimes this sunday past discussed the frequency of divorce in pop culture as a way for adults to make sense of marriage and vicariously learn about divorce.  

somewhat connected, i wonder if these films made by adults, for other adults, but about children do their "job" in educating adults about childhood - both remembering their own childhoods and, quite possibly, preparing their knowledge of their own children.  if so, this provides a solid illustration of the interconnection of age/generation and how each inform each other and how we - at any age - draw from pop culture for personal awareness.

thanks for this interesting post-  i look forward to renting these movies and re-watching them through this frame.

The notion of cross audience marketing is a very interesting one.  I wonder if part of the industry interest in a film like "Wild Things" is the potential that it has to cross not just the adult/child divide, but divisions within child audiences.

It has the "4-8 year old" source text, and the 'adult' tone, but it also has a narrative which can be read as a broad 'coming of age' metaphor - by focusing on more general angst, instead of sexuality.

The film could trigger nostalgia for someone still in their teens, while still seeming relevant.  Someone pre-pubescent, however, might see the film as evidence of how 'adult' and difficult their own lives are.  The very young would hopefully see it as just an adaptation of a favorite story.

It would be interesting to know who the creators of this film thought they were making it for.  All of the above?  In light of the continuing fragmentation of childhood into ever narrower niche-marketed groups, a story with this kind of breadth of interpretability might have looked like a potential goldmine.

If so, its polarizing performance might have some interesting ramifications for future industry thinking along these lines.  Perhaps a dash of self-mockery will improve performance: is an adaptation of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" in the offing?

Great post, Benjamin!

These issues of cross audience marketing pop up again in my post tomorrow, which may be telling. Children’s entertainment has always had to deal with appealing to adults in some ways, if only just to keep parents from being bored when they take their kids to the movies. Pixar is pretty aggressive about making films for children that revolve around serious issues (world-destroying consumerism in Wall-E and elderly despondence in Up come to mind) while the Dreamworks animated films typically rely on the tactic of inserting jokes and references that only adults would understand into other kid-centric films. But I think what we are seeing here is something different, with a property like Where The Wild Things Are that must have been pitched as appealing specifically to the 18-34 year old audience because of the association of so many “hip” names completely unfamiliar to children (Jonze, Karen O, Dave Eggers) and the Muppet nostalgia of the Henson-designed creatures (along the same lines, the Muppets are now being revived by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller who are known for very non-child friendly films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall).  That such a movie would focus on the experience of childhood suggests that nostalgia is not just a byproduct here, but one of the driving forces behind the entire film.

Another aspect of these films that I find interesting here is how these “indie” (for lack of a better word) directors’ emphasis on what could be described as “whimsy” or “quirkiness” translates so naturally into the realm of children’s entertainment. The distinctive “hand-made” style shared by fellow filmmakers in this vein is really central to both of these films.  The design of the “wild things” in Where The Wild Things Are emphasizes their constructedness, especially in comparison to the increasing prevalence of CGI characters in children’s films even when the rest of the film is live-action.  Fantastic Mr. Fox similarly spurns CGI in favor of now-scarce stop-motion animation (interestingly, Disney returned to its’ old style of animation recently with The Princess and the Frog). Furthermore, the narrative of the Where the Wild Things Are centers around construction (of a fort) and includes a plethora of oddly constructed structures in the forest where the majority of the film takes place.  This aesthetic design capitalizes on children’s love of the tactile and the hands-on desire to build -- the same features that ensure the popularity of Legos for the rest of time. Maybe someone needs to get Michel Gondry to direct that Alexander adaptation?


I appreciate all of your responses. I realize that my initial post comes across as rather uncritical of the films' and their representations of childhood. Although I think you have pointed out a number of interesting criticisms of the films.

I think that both films are directed to (and definitely marketed for) a nostalgic generation of adults.I don't know if I'd lump these films along with the recent remakes/ adaptations of 80's pop culture like Transformers and the A Team--which so obviously bank on adult audience's nostalgia. But Steven's on to something with his comment about the 'hipster indie' sensibility of the films.

While I do think that the films can be accessed by both children who identify with the characters' struggles and adults who recall their own childhood, this cross-generational marketed seems quite calculated.

My examples, and the majority of the films that address childhood as such, do focus on boyhood.  And your right, Morgan, that films that address girlhood tend to emphasize the 'wild' in the physical and sexual (even if metaphorically--I'm thinking Let the Right One In, Thirteen or even Phoebe in Wonderland). I'm also interested to see if Sofia Coppola's Somewhere addresses girlhood in any interesting way. What we really need is some female director to adapt some Judy Blume. (And Jeremy, I do believe that there is an Alexander movie in development now.)

I think this conversation is helpful in that these representations contribute to the construction of the contemporary concept of childhood. As much as we naturalize the 'wildness' of the maturing process, I wonder to what extent these struggles faced by children are products of shifting social conventions, contemporary domestic relations, and the mediated representations of such. To what extent do representations of 'the wild child' work to naturalize difficulties faced by children that, perhaps, should be challenged? Something to think about.


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