Fantastic Mr. Fox: Vulpine Nature

On Film / Essays — Feb 17, 2014

“Boggis and Bunce and Bean / One fat, one short, one lean. / These horrible crooks / So different in looks / Were nonetheless equally mean.” Roald Dahl’s wicked limerick at the expense of the three ghastly poultry farmers in his concise and razor-sharp 1970 children’s novel Fantastic Mr. Fox echoes through Wes Anderson’s 2009 film version of the book, the English children’s voices that chant the lines a reference to its source. Those disembodied voices are as good an illustration as any for the way this film, the director’s remarkable first foray into animation, respects the essence of the work from which it is adapted and yet creates something entirely new, keeping the original at a careful distance but always just within earshot. What’s so charming about Anderson’s take on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which deals with the struggle of George Clooney’s eponymous hero to be an upright member of society and contain the animal nature that lives inside his natty corduroy suit, is the way in which, both visually and in terms of storytelling technique, you never know what’s around the corner, but every­thing feels organic, nothing seems like a gimmick. It’s of a piece with the warm individualism that runs through all his films. He is a director with great empathy for folks—in this case, they happen to be animals—who don’t fit completely comfortably into the worlds they find themselves in. Without ever lecturing us, he leads us to question those worlds, and the ones we find ourselves in too.

It could be argued that Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is itself a frisky update of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales, in which talking animals are also adventurous and neatly clothed. In Dahl’s book, Mr. Fox steals happily from the three Bs on behalf of Mrs. Fox and their little foxes until Bean and his cohort of greasy accomplices scheme to revenge this larceny by digging them out of their hole and killing them all. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, with their thousands of chickens, geese, and turkeys, are factory farmers who’ll let nothing—certainly not one wily fox—stand in the way of profit; their con­sump­tion of their own product is repellent, in Dahl’s characteristically savage style. Bunce eats nothing but doughnuts and goose livers: “He mashed the livers into a disgusting paste and then stuffed the paste into the doughnuts. This diet gave him a tummy-ache and a beastly temper.” The villains in Dahl’s work are never too hard to discern.

Heroes and villains are, broadly speaking, not the people who populate Anderson’s films. His are very specific worlds, eccentric but always emo­tion­ally real; his Mr. Fox has more in common with such flailing father figures as Royal Tenenbaum of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Captain Duffy Sharp from Moonrise Kingdom (2012) than he does with Dahl’s gleeful predator. Dahl’s Mrs. Fox treats Mr. Fox’s occupation—chicken, goose, and turkey thief—as the natural order of things; Anderson’s Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) wishes there were another way, even though she must, finally, acknowledge a fox’s essential nature. Anderson’s change of Mrs. Fox from the carefree mother of a litter of four to the anxious mother of an only child speaks volumes about the differences between these two creative sensi­bili­ties, and about Anderson’s keen ability to adapt a tale to his own quirky requirements. Here, the Foxes’ son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is a high-strung, moody loner who is not pleased when his cousin, the wonderfully named Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), comes to stay. In both book and film, Mr. Fox has his beautiful tail shot off, but only in Anderson’s film does it become a detached image of his foxhood, worn in triumph as a furry necktie by Farmer Bean—and a cause of near disaster when Ash attempts a tail rescue with Kristofferson, whose charm and agility are a wonder to all who meet him, to Ash’s intense dismay.

These are human dynamics in fox fur—and this is an ensemble piece, voiced by many actors who are stalwarts of Anderson’s work. Mr. Fox’s friend­ship with his long-suffering lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), is both an expansion and a subversion of a relationship barely sketched in the book. The creation of real relationships within a context that appears—on the surface, at least—to be contrived or unreal is exactly what Anderson does best. How better to express the conflicts we all feel between our inner natures and what the world expects of us than through a group of animals that must negotiate the dangerous human world? As Anderson’s Mr. Fox asks himself, “How can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in its teeth?” Watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” you end up thinking that’s true not just of foxes.

Which all sounds terribly serious, of course. In fact, the whole is leavened by zaniness. This is especially true of the music, from the opening bars of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” to the ebullient zippy-zye, zappy-zoo ballad per­formed by Jarvis Cocker’s Petey in honor of Mr. Fox’s skills. (It’s hardly surprising that Michael Gambon’s Bean disapproves. “That’s just bad song­writing! You wrote a bad song, Petey!”) Like the lightning that’s a motif of Mrs. Fox’s landscape paintings—which calls to mind the lightning strike at the end of Moonrise Kingdom—a happy silliness electrifies the movie, from the explanation by Coach Skip (Owen Wilson) of the convoluted rules of whack-bat (which is something like cricket, baseball, and soccer put together—it’s a wonder, really, that it hasn’t caught on) to Willem Dafoe’s acrobatically murderous rat. There is almost literally nothing in this film that isn’t delightful or surprising.

So is this a kids’ film or a grown-ups’ film? An English film (the landscapes are certainly English, and, in the classic tradition of silver-screen baddies, the wicked farmers remain firmly so) or an American one (like the rest of its cast)? Who says you—or Anderson—have to choose? The warm, foxy tones of the delicate stop-motion ani­ma­tion create a completely particular space for the characters to inhabit—and like all the best work that’s accessible to children, it offers another layer (many other layers) to the adult viewer. My son was nine when the film came out; he loved it because it was a great cartoon, and that was enough for him. Now that he’s thirteen—just a little older than Ash, at least in human years—it has changed for him. He has thought about what it means when his parents change their jobs and their lives; he has considered how crucial it is to excel at whack-bat—and what you might do if you don’t. His mother thinks about these things too. Fiction tells the truth about life—just in a different, an often unexpected, form.

There’s no disjunction between Anderson’s live-action work and this foray into animation. His idiosyncratic sensibility and eye for detail are a perfect fit with the handmade aesthetics of stop-motion animation. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox is sheer delight for the close attention to every aspect of the look and feel, from those lightning-lit paintings of Mrs. Fox’s to the way the foxes’ fur rises in a draft of wind; from the neatly sewn badge on the dastardly rat’s hand-knit sweater to the cotton-wool blast of an explosion. Mark Gustafson, animation director; Nelson Lowry, pro­duc­tion designer; and Tristan Oliver, director of photography, created a look for this film that is perfectly unique. I’m an American, like Anderson, and so like him I read Dahl’s book in the original American edition, illustrated by Donald Chaffin. Anderson has said that Chaffin’s tidy, highly detailed drawings were the “first inspiration” for the film—indeed, you can see a nearly identical front cover to the one on the edition that uses Chaffin’s work in the opening sequence. In recent years, and on both sides of the Atlantic, Quentin Blake’s illustrations have come to be most associ­ated with Dahl, but it’s clear why Anderson, with his feel for the telling detail, would be drawn to Chaffin’s funny but orderly style.

Do we ever really wonder whether Mr. Fox might fail to save his family—and beat the wretched Boggis, Bunce, and Bean—in this film? Perhaps not: the safety net of a children’s story is the guaranteed happy ending. But we don’t know how he’ll get there, or what he’ll discover about himself on the way. Dahl’s hero makes no bones about the sort of fox he thinks he is; it’s no surprise to him when his wife says, “MY HUSBAND IS A FANTASTIC FOX”—while Anderson’s Mr. Fox is plagued by existential doubt: “I think I have this thing where I need everybody to think I’m the greatest—the quote-unquote fantastic Mr. Fox—and if they aren’t completely knocked out, dazzled, and kind of intimidated by me, then I don’t feel good about myself.” So here’s a grown-up hero in a kids’ film, one whose doubt makes him endearing. Since we know he must defeat the farmers, conflict has to come from somewhere else. For Wes Anderson’s film, and for Wes Anderson’s Mr. Fox, that conflict comes from the most recognizable place to filmgoers of every age—it comes from within himself.