Thanks to @lordbyron080808 for taking a look at a new film from his unique perspective!
As a 48-year-old single, childless, movie critic sitting alone in a darkened theater at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and listening in a somewhat bemused fashion to the various whines, screams, and hushed parent – child conversations about popcorn, ice cream sundaes, and how the dark room wasn’t really so scary and would go away quite soon around me, it dawned on me rather quickly that I was the odd man out in this theater, and that the film that was about to take place in front of me was not immediately designed for my consumption. Rather, it belonged to that genre that is often regarded as the bane of thoughtful, adult moviegoers, the kids’ movie.
Moreover, I soon realized that the animated feature unfolding in front of me would be yet another modern adaptation of the famous 1719 British novel, “Robinson Crusoe,” by Daniel Defoe, a novel which I have both read and analyzed more than once as a student of English literature. It is a classic of British colonialist literature, and perhaps the first “realistic” modern novel. It brims with discussions of man’s dominance (both physically and technologically) over the natural world, the aggressive nature of European colonialism, and the problems of the cultural interactions with the “Other,” based on class and race. While it is certainly good adventure yarn, critically speaking, (and given the strained nature of contemporary conversations on race and class,) a modern, kid-friendly remake of “Robinson Crusoe” seems like an odd, and somewhat fraught, choice.
Thus, it dawned on me that if I were to do an appropriate review of “The Wild Life,” then I had to keep in mind two inter-related critical concepts: (1) the problem of insider vs. outsider competence, and to modulate my critical expectations based this crucial distinction. For, given my previous literary experience and the fact that, unlike most of the under-12 crowd assembled with their parents, I wasn’t there simply to spend a few hours enjoying myself, but rather, to assess the various merits of this film and whether it was worth a family of three—a parent and two kids–dropping at least $50 to see. Unlike much of the rest of the audience, I am, on this topic at least, a literary insider. I typically have a better sense of how faithful this movie was to its literary antecedent and (being a lit geek) would be more likely to be disappointed or annoyed when the adaption chose to alter or ignore important facets and themes from the earlier work. And (2) the notion of critical relevance—the idea that not only should the film strive to entertain its chosen audience for an hour and a half, but it should also be relevant to them by not only offering links to notions that are new or familiar, but also that it should add new and/or deeper meaning to their lives.
I, of course, am not alone in feeling the need to explore these notions of relevancy and group insider versus outsider expectations, and their effects on how groups receive and appreciate works of art. In her extremely new book (June 2016), The Art of Relevance, Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, argues that these concepts are crucial factors selling the arts to new and underserved audiences.
In fact, in Part II of her book in a chapter entitled, “Whose Room Is This,” Simon warns snobbish insiders (like myself sometimes) against a too-protective and exclusive attachment to their “spaces” (in this case “texts,”) lest such protectiveness might scare off outsiders who might both enjoy and learn from the encounter with new ideas and modes of thinking. She chides stuffy museum-insiders saying:
Anytime you look at an organization and think: “They’ve gone too far. They ought not to do that,” it’s worth asking yourself why. It’s rare that an entity adds something to their programming that is so divergent, and so powerful, that it injures other aspects of the institution. It may injure your idea of that institution, but it’s worth asking whether it really injures the entity itself. Is the room still intact? Is there still a place for you in it? That’s what matters.
To be relevant, we need to cultivate open-hearted insiders. Insiders who are thrilled to welcome in new people. Who are delighted by new experiences. The greatest gift that insiders can give outsiders is to help them build new doors. To say, I want you here—not on my terms, but on yours. I’m excited you think there might be something of value in this room. Let me help you access it.
I thought of this admonition as I walked into the South Lamar Alamo Draft House Theatre, coffee-less, hungry, and at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to attend the screening. My email invitation had warned me that there would be a few “pre-screening activities.” To my amazement, however, I arrived not to a few movie-people with crackers and brie on a plate, but to what appeared a well-attended “Gymboree.” The sponsors had hired a number of local artists and businesses to entertain the kids. (All the event photos are my own: )
Given the kid and animal-centric nature of the film, there was a petting zoo from “Tiny Tails To You”:
There was a booth offering balloon animals by Jasper from “Jasper & Costello”:
A “Kiwi’s Party” booth had even been erected to paint the kids’ (and the odd adult’s) faces into wild animals. I saw tigers, and zebras, koalas, giraffes, and more. There was a full menagerie of beasties underfoot:
The production company had even set up a movie-themed photo booth to take the families’ pictures. These were posted on the movie’s Facebook page after the show:
This pre-show, was, of course, kinetically-infectious and intriguing to watch–obviously fun for the kids, and did much to set everyone (including me) in the mood to watch a cute, animal-centric movie designed for children. But was it merely window-dressing for a weak, and boring show? Was the Franco-Belgian animated feature, “The Wild Life,” whose working/French-language title I later learned had actually been “Robinson Crusoe,” a critically relevant film? Did it sufficiently and convincingly introduce a mostly pre-teen audience to the complex wonders of Daniel Defoe’s seminal novel, “Robinson Crusoe,” a novel which was critically-hailed when it first appeared in 1719 and produced sequels, and which has been often adapted an imitated? Was it truly relevant, or was it merely what Simon calls, “[t]he rechewed meat of culture” when, in Chapter I, section 1 “A Walk On The Beach” of The Art of Relevance she stresses that:
[r]elevance is only valuable if it opens a door to something valuable. Once I understood the depth of Princes of Surf, I got embarrassed thinking about all the other projects I thought were relevant, doorways I had built for rooms that were hardly more than stage sets. Too often, our work opens doors to shallow, interchangeable rooms. We paint the entrances with phrases like FUN! or FOR YOU!, but that doesn’t change what’s behind the door. People see them for the flimsy motel rooms they are. We lie to ourselves, writing shiny press releases for second-class objects and secondhand stories. The rechewed meat of culture. We tell ourselves that as long as we link our work to people’s interests on the surface, they’ll be rushing for our door.
And they may come in the door… but they won’t come back. Doors to dullness are quickly forgotten. They give culture a bad name. Relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something substantive. Killer content. Unspoken dreams. Memorable experiences. Muscle and bone.
“The Wild Life” and its attendant pre-screening, I think, was mostly successful in its attempt to render the essence of Defoe’s classic relevant to a time and an audience that is so alien to the writer’s original one. This success, of course, is dependent on a central necessary psychological, philosophical, and narratological realignment of the themes central to Defoe’s text. Let me explain:
The pre-screening activities, especially the small animal petting zoo—which was the first and largest exhibit in the pre-screening–and the transformative face-painting, were particularly useful in psychologically de-focusing the children away from our human-centric world and its mundane concerns by first establishing a tactilely-palpable sense of empathy between the children and the natural world through their direct contact with small, cute, and vulnerable furry animals who were similar to the ones presented in the movie.
The face paint represented the beginning of the physical transformation of the children by reshaping their external selves to mirror their more animal-sensitive psyches. This metamorphosis would reach completion in the cinema itself, just before the film began, when, Jordan Steele, a local newscaster and celebrity, introduced the film by asked the children to gather with him in front of the stage and roar in the voice of the animals they were made-up as. It was both a cute and psychologically-affective (and effective, as well,) moment for many of the children.
I’ve gone into detail about this psychological pre-conditioning at the preview screening because, while the film essentially tells the well-known story of the famous English castaway, Robinson Crusoe, it does so through a rather, unusual, and inventive narrative technique: It tells the story from the prospective of Crusoe’s parrot—in Defoe’s original, Crusoe had several parrots, but the first he named, Poll, and he teaches it to speak. In “The Wild Life,” the Brazilian parrot, called “Mac”—probably short for Macaw—as all the animal names on the island represent diminutive foreshortenings of their species names—takes the narrative place of Defoe’s native slave, Friday. In this new movie Crusoe dubs him “Tuesday.”
The pre-screening activities helped the children better make the unusual narratological leap of being more sensitive to a non-human perspective. This preconditioning has effectively introduced the child audience to a central concept that undergirds Defoe’s novel, and colonialist literature more generally. They learn about the psycho-social construct called the “Other,” which represents all those things (and entities) which lie outside of central psycho-social construct of the “Self.” On account of this, their presence as that which is alien to this “Self” helps to define it basic boundaries. For Defoe, because Crusoe identified himself primarily in opposition to his South American native slave, Friday, this “Other,” and thus, the “Self” was established based around racial, ethnic, and class constructs. For the movie Crusoe, who defines himself primarily in opposition to his parrot, Tuesday and the other animals on their island, this “Othering” bases itself on species-driven terms.
The movies commences with Crusoe and his parrot being rescued from their deserted island by a band of pirates. Once on board, the Captain asks Crusoe to explain how he was shipwrecked and arrived in such a desolate place. He does so, mostly in the narrative background. Meanwhile, in the narrative foreground, Tuesday narrates Crusoe’s adventures from his perspective to a pair of mice aboard ship. This narratological inversion is important, however, because it problematizes (and often overthrows) the social hierarchy that Crusoe believes he has established as the sole human occupant, and thus, the ruler over the island.
Because the parrot, Tuesday, narrates the story, he places himself and his own psychological crisis as the story’s basic engine: Before Crusoe’s arrival Tuesday, and his several animal friends led a very sheltered and monotonous existence. This monotony, however, led Tuesday to try and discover the outside world. He believed that more existed than their lonely archipelago. His incurious friends, Kiki, a kingfisher bird, Pango, a Pangolin, Epi, an echidna, Carmello, a chameleon, Rose, a large tapir, and Scrubby, a nearly-blind old goat, disagree, but he persists, collecting trinkets that wash up on their island.
Tuesday’s desire to see the outside world reflects and inverts Crusoe’s and the European desire to explore, colonize, and ultimately, exploit the world. Like Crusoe, Tuesday launches his own expeditions to find new lands and to return home with treasures from the outside world. On one expedition before Crusoe’s arrival, he returns with a signet ring and offers it as proof of a world beyond their island. Moreover, Tuesday’s expedition is the first gambit in a film-wide challenge a central theme of Defoe’s original—that of the human domination of the world, both physically and technologically.
In Defoe’s text, Crusoe shows his physical dominance over nature by cultivating various crops, making bread, furniture and other objects. He also raises goats, and tends a “family” of dogs, cats, and parrots. To demonstrate his technological dominance, he builds two shelters, and stocks a fort in the woods.
Similarly, in “The Wild Life,” Crusoe attempts to builds several structures on the island, but, according to Tuesday, he is rather bumbling, and fails until the animals band together to assist him. While he does learn to fish and gather fruit, given the pro-animal ideology of the film’s narration, he refuses to kill the wild life on the island. Technically, he does “tend” a family of animals on the island, including, initially, dogs, and a goat, among other things. But, unlike the novel, he is virtually powerless to control them. Not only do none of the animals, besides Tuesday—who uses this power in important ways in the story—understand human language, but Robinson is generally too soft-hearted to use his technological advantages to force them to obey him. In this re-imagining as well, the human cannibals who range as ever-looming threats to Defoe’s Crusoe are re-envisaged as a pair of malign, predatory cats, Mal (co-incidentally, mal is the French word for “evil,” a fact that given the animation’s Franco-Belgian provenance is linguistically significant) and May. The filmmakers, to their credit and to my great critical relief, have clearly read Defoe. While they do make a number of radical changes to the story, they still seem to respect the original story.
Equally importantly, the filmmakers also seem to respect and trust the potential intellectual capacity of their admittedly young target audience. One example of this trust is demonstrated in their depiction of the animals’ ability to employ intuitive thinking and reason—a notion that Defoe’s Crusoe steadfastly reserves for human, and most primarily, white Europeans—to learn how to operate complex human technology towards the end of the film.
For there is one piece of human technology that Crusoe possesses that could (and in Defoe DOES) allow him to dominate the island and its ecosystem: gunpowder and firearm technology. This bit of tech is so important to Defoe’s Crusoe that he employs great care to building a fort for his guns and ammunition in the words. As any decent cultural historian would admit, their adoption of gunpowder from the Chinese via the Arabs and their development of firearm technology represented a crucial advantage in their colonial domination of much of the world from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries.
Thus, it would have been rather naïve for the (European) filmmakers of “The Wild Life” to ignore any discussions of this lethal technology’s powerful, and destructive role in the European conquests. The film hints at, and then directly address this problem at several points in the film. To represent its malicious and destructive employment, the cats, indirectly, use it in an early, unsuccessful plot to kill Crusoe, leading to the story’s only, and somewhat disturbing, tragedy.
And later, when the cats mount their final siege on Crusoe and the animal’s tree house on the island, without Crusoe’s assistance, the animals must band together and learn, through the use of intuition, motive mimicry, and collective heuristic problem-solving analysis to use the man’s musket to their benefit.
The children’s acceptance of the intuitive creativity displayed by the animals in the movie is, I believe, prepared by the final pre-screening activity before the show—the balloon-twisting display. For not only did this booth entertain the children by having an artist fashion facsimiles of animals and toys—like guns –for their delectation, watching Jasper as he created these constructs out of seemingly unsuitable materials, rather subtly prepared them to reason along with the animals as they solved the technological puzzles laid out for them in the film.
Although I did not realize it at the time, the choice of activities at the pre-screening were not merely haphazardly-chosen activities that superficial introduced activities that might engage children, although many children DO like petting zoos, face-painting, and balloon-animal artistry. These preshow events served to make several facets of the film’s story, embedded ideology, themes, and narrative decisions more RELEVANT — that is cognitively valuable– to the children and to viewers in general, like myself. Of course, most screenings of the film won’t include such seemingly ancillary activities.
Re purposing a metaphor Nina Simon used in her book, while they do certainly assist with “tenderizing” and rendering it digestible, the August, 3 screening of the “Robinson Crusoe” animated adaptation, “The Wild Life,” together with its ingenious and artistic pre-screening activities, offered not the boring, derogatory “re-chewed meat of culture” that Simon decries. Rather, understanding that with assistance and curricular planning, children are capable of comprehending and learning from even otherwise rather difficult texts like “Robinson Crusoe.” Thus, I would argue that in this case, that the “meat of culture” has been actively “pre-chewed—that is partially per-digested, as some animals do for their young, to facilitate their assimilation of difficult materials.
@lordbyron080808 is graduate of The University of Texas-Austin with advanced studies in French and English literature.He lives in Austin and enjoys reading, discussing history and current events.