A few days ago I saw three films in one day- all of the same, slightly absurd genre. This group of films, according to me, would be what you call kid movies with a darker side, and it is absolutely genius! It is one of my favourites and these films too define the genre in pure terms, despite the different plots and themes and filming techniques. They are (in the chronological order they were viewed by me):
1) The Polar Express- One of my favourite Christmas movies, despite having seen it only twice. Last time saw it was like five years ago. It is based on a book by the same name and tells the story of a growing boy whose faith in Christmas is restored after an adventurous and magical journey to North Pole on Christmas Eve on board the enchanted Polar Express. On the journey, the Hero Boy meets the funny and responsible Conductor, the holiday spirited Hero Girl, the poor and sad Lonely Boy, the annoying Know-it-All and the mysterious and elusive Hobo.
This is a beautifully made animated picture, about kids and elves and Santa, but what it does is that it tackles with the problems of growing up-in Christmas terms. Even though the film is based around 1945, it shows how people nowadays, i.e., the ones with "brains" seem to lose all sense of magic and splendour in this world. The journey by the Polar Express regains Hero Boy's "belief" (that being a key word) in Christmas, which he never ever loses again.
There are many darker sides to this film, with the ghostly Hobo, the permanent sense of danger, the discarded and horrific toys, the CIA-ish army of elves and the not-so-jolly, but rather a celebrity-like and sensible Santa Clause. Also the Lonely Boy, for who Christmas never works out- we don't find out whether that changes or not.
However, the magic of this genre is how everything has a place in the larger picture- even the darker themes. It is a very moving and ultimately good film with some excellently created scenes- one cannot help but connect the wind-borne ticket to the feather in Forrest Gump, thanks to the epic film maker Robert Zemeckis, and the brilliant Tom Hanks. And obviously the message- that of belief and love and Christmas spirit. I mean though I am an agnostic Muslim girl of the goddamned 21st century, I truly believe in Christmas and films like the Polar Express just deepen that belief of mine, and all those like me. Ebert calls it a perennial film and I agree.
2) Lemony Snickets, A Series Of Unfortunate Events- Right at the beginning we are told by the narrator, who is Lemony Snickets himself, that this film is unpleasant and if we want to watch something with a happy little elf, there is still plenty of seating in theatre number two. It tells the story of the three Baudelaire children- the inventor Violet, the reader Klaus and the biter Sunny. Their parents die at the beginning of the film in a mysterious fire that burns down their entire mansion. Then they are sent to their nearest relative, the evil and eccentric Count Olaf. Count Olaf wants their inheritance and tries to kill them many times, but every time his plans fail due to the combined brilliance of the Baudelaire children. That is the story in a nutshell, except it is much much much more.
This is a dark film through and through and hardly gives the warm feeling I had experienced from the Polar Express. But I love this film to bits and watch it every time it comes on the telly. First reason- the story. The book series are brilliant, as told to me by a very reliable friend. She says the fact that they are morbid yet child-friendly is where their ingenuity lies. Also she loves the movie, so I'm guessing it does justice to the books. The many situations that the Baudelaires get into due to Olaf is amazing- their car being stuck in the middle of a train track with the train coming head on, or the Incredibly Deadly Viper and Sunny, or escaping from the tumbling down house at the edge of a cliff. But what is even more awesome is how the Baudelaires manage to outwit Olaf in each of his master-plans and escape.
Second reason- the cast. Jim Carrey in his best role to date- Count Olaf! He is such a genius, and every character he plays and every expression on his face shows how incredible an actor he is. The Baudelaires played by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and Kara and Shelby Hoffman as baby Sunny are really good child actors, especially Liam Aiken who I have loved since Stepmom. Of course Lemony Snickets was Jude Law who is a brilliant narrator, and I love narrators! And the supporting cast from Timothy Spall, Bill Connolly, Cedric the Entertainer, Catherine O' Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Dustin Hoffman and my favourite Meryl Streep, who superbly played the paranoid aunt Josephine.
The last reason why I love this film is the look of the whole film. All the excellent quotes and acting and story wouldn't have been ever as appreciated if the film did not have the gloomy and grey atmosphere. That was achieved when the director Brad Sterling brought together the funky, kooky and masterful trio responsible for another black comedy epic- Sleepy Hollow. The trio consists of production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. My favourite scene is the one in which the Baudelaires escape from Aunt Josephine's flimsy house as it merges complete diabolical aspects with excellent effects.
Though the whole feel of this film is dark, it is a very hopeful story. The Baudelaires always manage to stay together, safe and happy despite Count Olaf's numerous efforts to bring misery to them. their sense of love and family is what is meant by the word "sanctuary" which is mentioned many times throughout the film. Also their constant hope of a better tomorrow, or rather a sane guardian is what this makes this film a happy one after-all. I have only one complaint- WHY WEREN'T THERE MORE LEMONY SNICKETS FILMS MADE??????
3) Where the Wild Things Are- I read the book about two months ago and thought it was sweet. However a picture book with almost no text didn't interest me all that much. Then I saw the movie last week...
It is a visually stunning masterpiece. The wonderful Max and his enviable and extraordinary imagination forms the basis of this film. He is a lonely 8 year old kid who one day in a tantrum runs away from home and then sets sail to the unbelievable land of the Wild Things. The Wild Things are these huge, adorable and monsterish beings, who make Max their king. And then the wild rumpus begins!
This is a very deep film. Maurice Sendak, the author of the book, had received much criticism for showing a child's violent anger in the book, but the film is much more intense. It was released as an adult film actually. Max's mind is a beautiful and pure wild thing itself and that cannot be turned into something kids would understand quickly. It is a mind of a brilliant sad and lonely boy and it is both frightening and mesmerizing. The ways in which he makes stories in his head, using simple child language, but the very depth of there meaning is something even the oldest people would be able to relate to. From the igloo, to wrecking his sister's room, to telling the vampire story to his mum, to the introduction to total death by his teacher, to the actual time spent with the Wild Things, they are just a very innocent way of showing the loneliness and anger and hope and despair all of us feel in our daily life. Only none of us are as talented and naive as Max to tackle them in such a way.
Still I think many children, especially boys, would like the more violent and fun parts. I sure did.
Max Records, who plays the film's Max, is the cutest American kid since Liam Aiken. His ability to play the film's fun, mischievous, sad and thoughtful Max was sheer acting expertise. He is extremely mature for an actor his age, yet innocent and oh so adorable. And then of course there were the Wild Things, who were the exact copy of the illustrations in the book. But they too had complex characters- each different, innocent, ad and beautiful in it's own way. Their lines in the film unlike I think their 8 or 9 lines in the book were really some of the best ever. It is a gorgeous film and Spike Jonze is a total creative genius.
There is one more film which falls directly into this category and that is the wonderful Pan's Labyrinth. I will write about it whenever I see it next, as I have seen it only once. Other movies include the Harry Potter series and the Good Son. I cannot write about Harry Potter as a part of anything, as it holds such and important and significant part in my life. I'll write about it as an ode or tribute or something after the final film is released *sniff sniff*. And Good Son, well apart from the fact that it has Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood, who were the cutest American kids before Liam Aiken, it has nothing warm or fuzzy in it.
Watch all of them though!