The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse
The book, the movie, and what they each said to me.
I watched "The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse" a few nights ago and while it was beautifully animated, I couldn’t believe I found it—boring.
Yes, boring! I'm usually a sucker for sweet stories with children and animals but this was one big bear hug, way too reminiscent of the Pooh stories, but without any reliable story or personal charm.
(Spoiler alert: don't continue if you're planning on watching it.)
After about the first quarter, as beautiful as it was, I felt manipulated and increasingly irritated. The characters appear from nowhere with no background and no real reason for being there. The animals talk, of course, but mainly in platitudes. There are no clues to what has happened before this all began. Not ever.
A child is 'lost' but lost from whom? From where? How did he get that far into the wilderness? How is he surviving in the snow with no food or adequate clothing? He doesn't know his name or where he came from, just that he wants a 'home'. And of course, before it’s over, they all discover what 'home' really means in that cliched way we've seen dozens of times before. But in the end there's still no food, no shelter, no way they could survive in the snow for long.
I so wanted to like this and was in the mood for it, but a series of beautiful animations without a real story just wasn’t enough.
But here's the thing: I think it would work as a picture book. Just not a movie. We have expectations from a movie that we don't have from a picture book. We can immerse ourselves in a picture book, we can turn the pages at our own pace, we can suspend our disbelief and go along, and if there is no real end, no solution, the journey is often enough.
I don't know how to explain it, but it's happened to me before. I felt that way reading 'The Little Prince', then watching the movie. I’ve loved that book for what feels like generations, but I was totally turned off by the cinematic version. It became someone else’s vision of a beloved story and I saw it as a complete, failed intrusion on a story that wasn’t without its mysteries but was full of emotion. No animator, no filmmaker could capture those words on paper. They were meant to mean something different to each of us. The camera doesn’t allow that.
Some things are better left to their original conceptions. Not everything needs to be changed into something it was never meant to be. We still haven’t learned that.
Oh, wait… Update: Well, I’ll be… I found this in Marginalian, Maria Popova’s magnificent website. It speaks to why The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse works as a picture book. She makes the connection between Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince, just as I did on my own. (It seems I’m on to something, though Maria, of course, explains it much better than I ever could.)
And now…an Update on the Update: I started this post days ago, but on the strength of Popova’s essay, I ordered the book. It arrived yesterday (1/5/23).
I’m going to try to describe how it felt to read it, but keep in mind I only just read it last night and anything I say here may just be the thoughts of someone newly, madly in love.
I fell in love, first, with the author, Charlie Mackesy, and I blame him for whatever comes next.
He had me at “Hello”:
Hello. You started at the beginning, which is impressive. I usually start in the middle, and never read introductions. It’s surprising that I’ve made a book because I’m not good at reading them. The truth is, I need pictures. They are the islands, places to get to in a sea of words.
This book is for everyone, whether you are eighty or eight—I feel like I’m both sometimes. I’d like it to be one you can dip into anywhere, any time. Start in the middle, if you like. Scribble on it, crease the corners, and leave it well thumbed.
I just wanted to know him, you know? And even though I had watched the movie only days before, I couldn’t wait to get into the book.
I wasn’t disappointed. Not for a single minute. It was, to use one of Charlie’s favorite words, lovely.
On the page, it transformed into something only slightly familiar, but in my own mind’s eye, something clearer and deeper. There is far less story in the book, yet it makes far more sense. I see the characters in the book, and I know them because I helped to make them up.
I went on a journey—a quest—and came to a place totally unexpected but incredibly lovely. It didn’t start out that way, just as it didn’t in the book. In the movie I was looking for something that wasn’t there. I found it in the pages of a hardcover.
And all because a writer who didn’t think he could do it…
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