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The Fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox

[1]3,706 words

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is a wonderful film designed and directed by Wes Anderson. It was his first stop-motion animation, and its success led to its even wilder spiritual successor Isle of Dogs, an important landmark in Japanophile cinema. Around the time of its release, Fantastic Mr. Fox stood alongside other unusual works like Rango (2011), Chicken Run (2000), Up (2009), and Where the Wild Things Are (2009), all released in a period of scintillating creativity in the animated film industry.

This period began in 1996 with the release of Toy Story and ended in 2012 with the release of the first Avengers film, which married computer-generated heroes and villains with the superhero genre and the concept of a “cinematic universe,” rather than a chronological series of sequels and prequels. It is notable that Hayao Miyazaki’s most widely known and acclaimed films, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, were also released in 2001 and 2004 respectively.

These concoctions (excluding Miyazaki) were devised as studios struggled to digest the possibilities afforded by computer graphics. They hit upon the formula of the fully animated “franchise movie” that could be milked for diminishing returns with successive sequels. The Shrek and Monsters Inc. franchises are strong examples of this, despite failing to emulate Toy Story’s seemingly evergreen storytelling.

Quickly sensing that audiences would shy away from these lazy and derivative films, filmmakers attempted to differentiate themselves through creative direction or by tapping star power. Pixar’s films have an imaginative breadth that humiliated their competitor Dreamworks, who exemplified the attempt to cash in on celebrity status with Will Smith in the atrocious Shark Tale. Pre-existing cultural cachet was also leveraged in a desperate attempt to keep box office revenue flowing. Thus, Aardman Animations got their shot at adding to the eternal fame of Wallace & Gromit with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

The Matrix had previously demonstrated in 1999 that science fiction commentary about “virtual worlds” was exhausted (long before Palmer Luckey put together his first Oculus Rift prototype) and had to bust into new genres to remain relevant. In response to this creative deficit, more enterprising flicks like Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) were produced. The Pirates franchise would later become a standard-bearer for the computer enhancement of live actors by incorporating Bill Nighy as an animated octopus. This all says nothing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit’s Gollum, which integrated fully-rendered characters into films as a central fixture. Taken altogether, the cinema of the 2000s was as flourishing as it is now floundering. It exploited every genre to convey heroism through unexplored mediums and unusual, off-beat narratives.

Fantastic Mr. Fox came after a string of niche, cult, and frankly odd films by Anderson: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic (2004), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) being the most well-known. (There’s also The Squid and the Whale, but I haven’t seen that.)

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Anderson initially seems a strange fit for adapting the Roald Dahl novel of the title, as the narrative is driven by the violent antagonism of three English farmers and the titular Mr. Fox. All the gunplay and bitter tit-for-tat have to deliver some emotional punch, which is why the bulk of the film emphasizes the increasing strain the Fox household is put under by Mr. Fox’s exploits. Anderson has already dealt with parenting difficult prodigies, so Mr. Fox’s marriage and family provides an interesting space for him to transpose his cinematic talents.

The family drama is framed by the central conflict in the film, Nature vs. Man — or rather, “traditionalism” or traditional heroism vs. money-grubbing industrialization. Mr. Fox stands for an implicit charitability towards the unblemished natural environment vs. modernization, commerce, and the reign of quantity. The English countryside is represented chiefly by the Fox family, flanked by a cast of other anthropomorphic animals. Their species are actually listed by their Latin names at one point in the film. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, the three grasping and obsessed farmers, are the sour representatives of modernized man.

Non-anthropomorphic animals also have a role. There are chickens, which are Mr. Fox’s prey, choice of sport (by theft), and the main luxury foodstuff of the Fox family. Hunting Beagles are also portrayed realistically. The talking woodland animals constitute a small township with its own butchers, estate agents, attorney, newspaper, and school. Their simple domesticity is threatened by the destructive wrath of the farmers that Mr. Fox provokes with his recurring thefts.

Interestingly, all the animals presented as mere animals are the property of the farmers, further suggesting that the animal side of the conflict equation is an analogy for aristocratic co-existence and collaboration with Nature.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is an aristocrat. He is handsome, witty, and charming. He can effortlessly lead a crowd, and, using his social prowess, he shapes the township into a battalion and a people. He is suave and disarming, but his manipulations spring not from malice but a genuine and quite selfless desire for achievement and social acclaim. It fuels his admiration for athleticism and infatuation with daring theft.

This is much to the chagrin of his son, the diminutive and introverted Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Ash is small and clumsy. He harbors a natural resentment to the newest addition to the household, Cousin Kristofferson (Wes’s brother, Eric Anderson), who with seemingly effortless talent outshines him socially and athletically and becomes Mr. Fox’s confidante. Kristofferson is one of those untroubled souls who have mastered the art of simply getting on with things after having found a motivating current to carry them through life (“Excuse me everyone, I’m going to go meditate for half an hour.”). Ash has yet to come into his own, so he expresses and consoles himself with a makeshift imitation of comic-book heroes (“Why a cape with your pajamas tucked into your socks?”). Finally, Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep) is Mr. Fox’s wife, who is as resolute and adaptable as he is — without, it must be added, ever compromising her femininity (except for one slightly off-key confrontation with a rat).

Felicity’s discovery of Mr. Fox’s increasingly brazen chicken thefts has some of the best cinematography of the film. The audience discovers the pantry full of plucked chickens from her first-person viewpoint, watching her hands curl in suspicion. As she delivers a threat to Mr. Fox and his sidekick, Kylie, the camera dollies up closer to her expression for the delivery: “If what I think is happening, is happening . . . it better not be.” The increasing tension brilliantly involves the audience.

Another Anderson trick is to zoom further into the shot as characters and dialogue change; a kitchen table discussion ends, the camera zooms into the window in the backdrop, where Mr. Fox then engages a passing Kylie in conversation. The recurring use of this technique makes Wes Anderson films more theatrical than cinematic, as scenes are arranged so they can develop and change in composition without changing camera shot or sideways tracking.

Ash’s self-esteem issues and attempts to go against his natural aptitudes in order to find his father’s approval are relatable for young adults in a phase of self-discovery. Anderson’s films are a catalog of patricians: The Royal Tenenbaums’ plot revolves around wayward children returning to resolve their differences with their father. Mr. Fox’s warm, competent, sometimes flawed, yet honest attempts at parenting are a welcome change from Steve Zissou’s (Bill Murray’s) on-again, off-again half-relationship with the previously abandoned Ned in the father-son storyline in The Life Aquatic. Ash and Kristofferson’s adjustments to each other are a distant echo of the three brothers in The Darjeeling Ltd. (a considerably weaker film), and Cousin Kristofferson provides a level-headed counterweight to Mr. & Mrs. Fox’s heat and bravado. Kristofferson has white fur and blue eyes to match his cool temperament, meanwhile, the orange Fox family is proclaimed by Ash to have, amusingly, “the guts in their blood” to undertake wild dares.

Anderson doubles down on the quirky set design, carefully chosen color palettes, and well-composed shots he pioneered in The Life Aquatic for the translation of Fantastic Mr. Fox to stop motion. The sets and scenes of Fox are cohesive and immersive. The opening shots of Mr. Fox doing a gentle warm-up and the approach of the as-yet unmarried Felicity Fox are near cinematic perfection in their stark simplicity: The opening silence and close presentation of highly detailed models conveys that underneath its humor, this is a serious film that takes itself seriously, and has serious things to say about its principal characters and their way of life.

The slightly stiff animation and subtle shifts of expression in the youthful Felicity Fox are tantalizing, and George Clooney and Meryl Streep’s vocal delivery is light, easy, and nuanced. This opening and the subsequent scenes of them robbing a chicken farm together establish an origin point from which the rest of the story derives: Their marriage, Mr. Fox’s boredom with domestic life and lapse into his old ways, Ash and Kristofferson’s attempt to steal back Mr. Fox’s tail from the farmers (after it was shot off) all lead back to Mr. Fox’s habits, charm, and love of daring feats.

Mr. Fox decides to move the family into a home in the hollow of an oak tree, despite his wife and his lawyer’s advice. She remarks: “You know, there is a reason foxes live in holes.” The middle-aged Mr. Fox is feeling like he hasn’t quite managed to fulfill his ambition and persists — “I’m seven fox years old, my father died at seven and a half. I don’t want to live in a hole anymore.”

Their existence is placid until Mr. Fox’s increasing thefts drive the farmers to stakeout their home and “shoot the cuss.” They get the tail but miss the fox, thus beginning a siege that drives the Foxes underground and to conduct further raids on the farmers’ property. With each theft and reprisal, the conflict between the Foxes and the farmers is escalated until it becomes impossible for either of them to back down without losing face. Riffing on the thematic precedent set by Chicken Run, the animal township becomes locked in an existential struggle with the farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. In a scene-stealing delivery, Badger declares “A lot of good animals are probably gonna die, because of you!”

The farmers are not aristocratic in the slightest. They are all socially stunted, with appalling diets, and share a mild monomania about their pastimes. Bean has an incredible cider-refining contraption he has brought to his portacabin office at the stakeout site. Boggis is astonishingly obese yet passive in relation to Bean’s tyrannical temper, and Bunce is just an odious dwarf. They all fit in Dahl’s gallery of grotesques, built up over a lifetime of authorship, alongside others with similarly ridiculous names like Miss Trunchbull and Augustus Gloop.

As farmers, they are from a working-class profession, and like a great many short-sighted plebs with flat souls, jealousy and the Great British scarcity mentality has made them hard and mean. Moving into business, they each have built up their own farming complex. Bean tells us their total workforce sums to a hundred and eighty-eight men, which in modern, mechanized farming is a considerable if not astonishing number for a few seeming “local farmers.”

It is later revealed they are proprietors of a chain of supermarkets. Yet, despite being spiritually empty, they aspire to cultivate the trappings of the gentry — Boggis’ house is decorated with hunting trophies, Bunce takes an interest in classical music and he is seen perusing a travel magazine about skiing in the Swiss Alps, and Bean presumably has an interest in historical weaponry if the Luger he carries is anything to go by. Bean has a severe temper, a stern visage, lives solely on a diet of alcoholic cider, and is described as Badger as “possibly the scariest man currently living.” This particular line is ad-libbed, does not appear in the script, and fits better than the original “biggest cusshole.” Badger is played by Bill Murray, whose ad-libs in The Life Aquatic involved pulling a gun on a reporter, something Anderson thought was so outrageously funny he kept it in the film after multiple takes.

None of the farmers’ personal pursuits relate to custodianship of the countryside around them. Bean commodifies nature; he is a turkey and apple farmer and “invented his own species of each.” The callousness of the farmers towards the countryside and her inhabitants is best expressed by their manic chortles as they tear down Mr. Fox’s tree. Later, they blow up the entire hill with explosives.

Alexander Desplat’s soundtrack is built around distinct percussion themes for the younger Foxes and a melody for the farmers, which becomes an “eerie little tune” when sung the local schoolchildren (Badger plays a recording: “Boggis, Bunce and Bean, one short, one fat, one mean. . .”) which later becomes a mainstay chorus in the soundtrack. It develops into an orchestral score with self-aware grandeur for the final escape from the farmer’s clutches, incorporating the character themes previously introduced, resolving them into a harmonious whole in the battle at “Great Harrowford Square.” Jarvis Cocker’s supporting cast member Petey plays a cheery banjo song celebrating Mr. Fox as the film’s centerpiece, “a splendid little fella full of wit and grace and charm” (at exactly 43 minutes into an 86 minute movie). The banjo returns as a genre reference to the high drama of a Western showdown, along with the hushed and apprehensive whispers of schoolchildren naming the farmers.

The score includes instruments from Western films and the historic West. Musically, Fantastic Mr. Fox is more “Anglosphere” than “English”:

Desplat uses banjos, guitars, fiddles, and all manner of unusual percussion to create a child-like atmosphere of fun and innocence, while rooting the film in a kind of mixed-up aural location that seems to span the American west, the Deep South, and the English countryside. It’s a very, very peculiar jumble, but one which works despite itself, mainly because of Desplat’s brilliance at bringing all these elements together into an enjoyable whole.” [1] [4]

For domestic charm, traditional songs are used, including Davy Crockett and the records of Burl Ives. There is also the unexpected addition of soulful classic rock. The Stones exaggerate English boisterousness with “Street Fighting Man,” and a celebration makes use of Bobby Fuller’s “Let her Dance.” Exuberance set to rock is something Anderson perfected in The Life Aquatic. The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” — “My children were born, you know they suddenly rise and took up, healthy wealthy and wise” — creates a musical interlude between the opening scenes and the present day of the Fox household.

There is also a touch of triumphalist, aristocratic arrogance in Mr. Fox’s encounter with a wolf emerging from a bleak winter forest. They exchange a raised fist salute, but if this movie was true to its ecological consciousness, it would be an open-palm Roman salute (but then it would never, ever be shown). Of course, there are no wolves or snowy mountain outcrops in England, further dislocating the film from its source material. The film’s plot adapts the original text as a second act, expanding the preceding character history considerably, then prolongs and escalates the feud with the farmers. The original novel stops around two-thirds of the way through, when Mr. Fox is raising a toast in a banquet celebrating their victory. In the film, this is premature, and the farmers very nearly drown the lot of them.

Anderson’s script is a vast improvement over the source text and actually makes Dahl’s offering look rather thin and incomplete. The metapolitical commentary of Fantastic Mr. Fox (the film) regarding self-described wild animals in a bitter struggle for survival against an agribusiness cartel elevates it beyond a mere bedtime story. Anderson explores the histories and motivations of the characters more deeply and greatly increases the stakes of the conflict. Moreover, his characters are drawn to the last detail with pointed and poignant messages. Bean is married, and his wife is apparently (literally) short-sighted. The kitchen of the Bean household, home to Mrs. Bean’s famously delicious apple pastries, is cold, utilitarian, and almost bare of domestic touches.

Dahl’s original story certainly has merit, but in the translation to film, Anderson (partly by necessity) allows the whole expanded thing to flow with dreamlike, subconscious leaps of logic. The Foxes escape on a perfect fox-sized motorcycle and sidecar; there is a stunt ramp inexplicably placed ready for them; cans tied together with bits of string can intercept radio signals, a broken broom handle becomes a carved, studded “whack bat,” and apples can be grown to have decorative stars. All of this is taken at face value by the human antagonists and everyone else: “I’ve got a fox on a motorcycle with a littler fox, and what looks to be an opossum in the sidecar, riding North on Farm Lane Seven. Does that sound like anything to anybody?”

The movie concludes with a celebratory toast, yet Mr. Fox is in a worse place than when he started. There’s tragedy in this comedy. One of the greatest things about this film is that the conflicts aren’t really anyone’s fault, but the result of inherent character limitations that cannot be helped. It is a lesson explicitly spelled out repeatedly, from Kylie the opossum being unable to bite a chicken to death: “I have a different kind of teeth from you. I’m an opossum!” to Kristofferson: “He’s slightly younger, but he’s a cuss of a lot bigger. That’s genetics I guess. Ash has a littler body type.” In the most delicate scene, Mr. Fox apologizes for his infidelity with the “truth about himself” that he’s a “wild animal.”

It is profoundly realistic for an alleged children’s film. It teaches that life is as it appears, that the strong and beautiful tend towards nobility of character, and that the plain, ugly, and stunted are callous and oblivious to what is above their caste and station. It flatly demonstrates that there is no egalitarian magic that can divorce people from their natural shortcomings. The villains in Fantastic Mr. Fox cannot be reformed; nor are they motivated by anti-liberal logic. They are simply greedy, evil people who have to be navigated around, confronted, and stolen from if necessary. It goes beyond being a simple action film, educating children about the complexities of adult life and showing them what adults and adulthood are really like (which, of course, makes it more than palatable to an adult audience). It is melancholy at heart. It opposes the free-floating realm of fantasy and “reinventing yourself” with living as who and what we are, and what we have done: “I love you too . . . but I shouldn’t have married you.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox should not be criticized for departing from the novel because it improves on it. Anderson’s Mr. Fox is a more vital and fully realized character than Dahl’s original. In this, Anderson has made an essential contribution to English cultural history, wholly deserving of praise and recognition. Anderson’s film should be seen as a thoughtful treatise on adulthood, rurality, parenting, and the English countryside. Unsurprisingly, marketers just did not know what to make of it. The Fantastic Mr. Fox advertising posters are just the characters with patterned backdrops that convey nothing about the film.

Perhaps saddest of all is the conspicuous absence of the Pine Marten from the supporting cast (along with the long-gone lynx, wolf, and brown bear). Once the second most common carnivore in the British Isles, this small woodland mammal is in England on the brink of extinction if not functionally extinct. Attempts are being made to transplant pitifully small numbers of Pine Martens from Scotland, where they are managing to repopulate themselves, to parts of Wales and Northern England (a mere 18 released into Gloucestershire in the first and most recent conservation attempt in 2019). British gamekeepers and trappers epitomized by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean hunted the Pine Marten in their money-obsessed savagery to protect their bird flocks (really, out of a whole flock, what is a pheasant or so for the sake of the survival of entire species?). Along with habitat loss due to forest clearance, the disappearance of the Pine Marten is the harbinger of doom for the equally threatened native Red Squirrel, driven out by the heavier, more robust, squirrelpox carrying Greys. Pine Martens have an easy lunch out of a grey squirrel, as they tend to prefer ground-scavenging. The lighter red squirrels evade capture by running to the ends of branches, but the grey squirrels are too heavy to escape. Thusly, industrial agribusiness and the attitude Bean encapsulates of just “shooting the cuss” is not mere movie villainy. The Pine Martens have been snuffed out, and England and the English as a race are poorer for it. Sadly, an anti-life, imperial arrogance is seemingly invincibly rooted into the British mentality, as evidenced by hunting foxes with hounds being laughably considered “upper class.” The English class system, of which Boris Johnson and Franklin Bean are products, is utterly divorced from personal virtue and the cultivation of noble qualities. Efforts to conserve and renew wildlife and the race are a far better measure of character.

The native inhabitants of the British countryside are blessings it is incumbent upon us to preserve. We must protect their right (and our own) to perpetuity. The power of capital threatens us all with dissolution, and it is propped up with ignorance and complacency. If there is a lesson that can be taken from Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is to resist these looming deaths with absolute tenacity — and in the bargain to be humbler and more compassionate to the innocents around us. In short, to be more heroic — and more aristocratic.

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Note

[1] [8] Fantastic Mr. Fox Original Soundtrack Review by John Broxten https://moviemusicuk.us/2009/11/13/fantastic-mr-fox-alexandre-desplat/ [9]