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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE FOX AND THE CHILD"

There have been many great movies about the bond between children and wild animals, and The Fox and the Child aims to be one of them. The film, coming to DVD June 2 from Warner Home Video, strips away all the cuteness and self-imposed "hipness" that so many family films rely on, instead trying to focus on the genuine emotions of its central (human) character. I admire the approach, and to a degree, it works. To another degree, the film is occasionally a little too low-key. If, for example, Alvin and the Chipmunks is a children's movie, then The Fox and the Child is a children's movie for children who'd prefer to hang out at the local arthouse cinema than at the multiplex.

The story is so simple, it might not even take me a whole sentence to describe it: a little girl spends the better part of a year observing and following a wild fox she discovers in the woods surrounding her home. That's about it. There are no other characters, no other people in the film, save for one adult who is shown from a great distance in a long shot. Kate Winslet narrates, providing the voice of the girl as she recalls details about her fox-watching. She waits for it every day. She follows its tracks in the snow. She locates the hole it lives in. She figures out that it's a bad idea to bring the fox into the house. The end.

One of the best children's films ever made was The Black Stallion. It too had only a kid and an animal, and like this picture, it had long stretches of wordlessness as we watched person and beast form a bond. The Fox and the Child wants to work in that tradition. The problem is that it never really establishes the inter-species bond as well as the other movie did. For one thing, foxes are intrinsically less charismatic than horses. For another, foxes naturally shy away from humans, whereas horses interact with them. It therefore makes for a more emotional tale to see a young boy finding a connection with a horse.

This is not to say we have a bad movie on our hands here, because we clearly do not. Moments of it are quite beautiful, such as a scene where the little girl observes the fox tending to its babies. Some of the scenes of peril are exciting as well (the fox is in constant danger from predators). There's also a scene near the end - slightly out-of-place in its gruesomeness, but effective nonetheless - that will tug on your heartstrings.

The Fox and the Child was written and directed by Luc Jacquet, who also directed the documentary March of the Penguins. Obviously, he knows how to get some extraordinary footage of animals behaving naturally in their habitat, which this film is filled with. Jacquet's widescreen compositions are gorgeous, as are his nature scenes. In every way possible, this is a great film to look at.

While there is much to admire here (and I did admire the film), the outcome falls short of the intentions. The whole movie feels like Jacquet went out and got some amazing footage of a real fox engaged in its day-to-day business, then hired a young actress and tried to sculpt some sort of "story" around that footage. The two halves never integrate the way they should in order to create a really meaningful relationship between the girl and the animal. The end result is a movie that's beautiful to look at and interesting in spots, yet also kind of a slow road to nowhere.

Are kids going to want to watch this DVD? Yes, but most likely in spurts. I imagine them fast forwarding through certain parts in order to get to others, namely the best of the nature footage. Still, in an era when so much kid-geared entertainment is practically a recipe for ADD, there's something appealing about a movie that encourages them to take a deep breath, slow down, and actually try to absorb something.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

The Fox and the Child arrives on DVD on June 2 in its original widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Picture and sound quality are excellent. There is no bonus material on the disc, but a digital copy is included.

The Fox and the Child is unrated but has nothing objectionable. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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