Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox

Last night, Steve and I went with some friends to see Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. Synopsis in a can: amateur scientist invents machine that makes food from water, greed, lack of forethought, it all goes horribly wrong, amateur scientist and friends discover hidden depths to save world. It was predictable, with all the family-values schmaltz and barely disguised moralising that you have to expect from a kids' movie. But nevertheless it was fun, with lots of gags, silliness, and bits that fly over the heads of the kiddies in the audience while making the adults choke on their popcorn. All the nerds and geeks will feel their toes curl as they empathise with Flint (even while they shout at the screen about the dodgy science and how water doesn't have a "genetic code" - remember guys, it's a kids movie), and there are no prizes for identifying the charcter voiced by Mr T.

But the thing that is still bugging my brain today is one of the trailers, for a film version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox. There are many things you can say about Roald Dahl, but "his writing is really compatible with predictable Hollywood formula" is not one of them. He was a dark genius, and the glory of his writing is that it is often highly disturbing and that the "winner" is not necessarily "the good guy".

What I recall of the storyline of Fantastic Mr Fox is: a family of foxes who steal their food from nearby farmers find themselves in trouble, when the farmers decide they've had enough and start to take some extreme pest control measures. But with skill and daring, Mr Fox manages to not only evade the farmers, but finds a way to steal even more food than he was stealing before, enabling all the vermin in the surrounding area to "eat like kings" for the rest of their lives. With the notable exception of the Rat who lives in the cider cellar, who Mr Fox and Badger, big bullies that they are, threaten to eat if he attempts to stop them stealing the booze for their party.

Mr Fox is not and does not claim to be anything other than a thief. That the farmers are upset by the constant thefts from the businesses that are their livelihood is quite understandable. However the reader is encouraged to be firmly on the side of the criminals, and against the farmers who are protecting their property. Where's the moral? Who knows? It's quite likely there isn't one. Dahl never claimed to be guiding or educating children - in fact he quite liked the idea that he might be just a little bit corruptive, a little bit wicked.

However I can't see a celebration of breaking rules for purely personal gain cutting the mustard with a Hollywood focus group. There must have been changes, and big changes at that.

Which makes me wonder. Do I go and see it, because I am a Dahl fan and it is a film version of one of his books? Or do I avoid it like the plague, because I am a Dahl fan and I don't want to see his work smashed to pieces with a saccharine hammer?


butterflywings said...

I love Dahl's writing for exactly the same reason.
I dunno. Film adaptations of books in general usually disappoint. That said, I quite liked the film version of 'Matilda'.

Mary said...

I liked the film of Matilda, although I always find something a little bit odd about films of books-that-promote-reading-over-watching, and the torture was rather watered down.

But then, Matilda has a "happy ending" and more universally "acceptable" definitions of Bad Behaviour. For example, when Mr Wormwood bodge-fixes the cars he sells - it is given as a Bad Thing, whereas for Mr Fox that would be evidence of yet more Fantastic-ness.

evilstevie said...

"Steve" *holds tail* :-)

I may be reading too much into it and I'll admit that my last reading of Fantastic Mr Fox was lots of years ago, but I got the idea that Mr Fox was meant to be fantastic from the fox's point of view - he fed his family as foxes do, by scavenging. He held a party for his friends at the expense of the farmers trying to uproot them, hence winning the day etc etc. The rest of it is down to Dahl's malleable points of moral reference. Mr Fox is being a fox. Danny is a poacher. Uncle Oswald is... well, probably best just leave that one be. Some main characters shine in their 'goodness' (Charlie, James, Matilda) where others just shine in the telling, to my mind.
I can't help but worry a bit that the new film version's trailers made me think of nothing so much as 'Ocean's Eleven' - partly the Clooney casting, partly the way it was "shot' (yes, yes, cgi gets rendered not shot, I know).

Mary said...

No, it was shot - with a Nikon D3. It's stop motion.

("malleable points of moral reference" at 3am, I ask you!)

Sarah said...

Avoid it like the plague. I am still mentally scarred by what they did to The BFG.

I can't see anyone making a film of My Uncle Oswald. Rather too many descendants of those crowned heads of europe with lawyers on speed dial I should think...

Mary said...

Following relatively recent revelations about Dahl's life after the end of events detailed in Going Solo, I think that the Uncle Oswald stories might have more grains of truth in them than were imagined when they were first published.

Carie @ Space for the Butterflies said...

I think I'm in the avoid camp - a film would struggle to meet my imagination and it's so painful to watch over-sanitised versions of quite dark writing.

I'm woefully behind the times and playing catch up so congratulations on the second job :)

Anonymous said...

whats the moral of the story