Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thoughts on "Fantastic Mr. Fox"


This is a film I’d been waiting for see for a long time. I don’t have and particular attachment to the Roald Dahl book it’s based on, which I vaguely remember as being mostly lengthy descriptions of how Mr. Fox goes about outwitting the farmers. But my husband loves the films of Wes Anderson, who was attached to Fantastic Mr. Fox early on. I was curious to see how Anderson would handle his first animated film and was looking forward to more puppet animation from Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie spent several years in development, surviving both the closing of its production company and Selick leaving to direct Coraline. For a while, I worried that it would be permanently stuck in development hell. But now its out in theaters and I’ve had a chance to see it.

As the film opens, the title character and his wife are stealing chickens from a farmer’s henhouse. During the heist, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she’s pregnant and, like many a movie wife, insists that her husband find a safer line of work. Like so many movie husbands, Mr. Fox acquiesces, but later finds himself dissatisfied with his new life. He writes a newspaper column that no one reads and his meager income has his family living in a hole, acceptable by animal standards, but far from the good life. Mr. Fox purchases an upscale tree home, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that it’s located near the factories of the notoriously nasty farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Once settled, he starts planning his final heist, setting in motion events that will lead to the farmers declaring all-out war on Mr. Fox, his family, and the whole animal community.

The movie doesn’t go out of its way to be a movie for kids, which is fine by me. It isn’t that it’s horribly inappropriate for kids, or even that kids wouldn’t like it. But the movie is a Wes Anderson film first and foremost. If you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll find his signature all over this movie, from the Wes Anderson regulars in the cast (Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman as Mr. Fox’s son Ash, Owen Wilson as the school coach, and Bill Murray as Fox’s lawyer Badger) to the way the characters interact with one another to the movie’s overall quirkiness. This combines with the darkness that is present in most Roald Dahl stories to create a movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of concessions to a younger audience. There is no ambiguity about the fact that the farmers intend to kill the Fox family, a fact made more disturbing when it becomes clear that the farmers know the animals can speak, write, and paint landscapes. During the movie’s emotional low point, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she does love him, but sadly admits that she now believes she should never have married him, a far cry from the traditional animated romances where love is all you really need.

I’m glad to see puppet animation still being made. The argument that it could be done equally well with computers is always there and will probably get more and more persuasive as the cost of computer animation goes down. But there is still something about the look of puppet animation that I have yet to see computers accurately replicate. This quality is on full display in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Henry Selick’s puppet animation films tend to be so smoothly animated that they almost lose the little nuances that separate puppet animation from computer animation. So I was happy to see the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox moving in the rough, fluttery, almost choppy way that is particular to puppet animation. I wish I had a better description for how this movement looks, since the words I use make it sound inferior. But it isn’t inferior, just different. I find it very appealing and an excellent fit for the story.

Part of what makes the movie feel less like the average kids’ film is the fact that it doesn’t beat the audience over the head with every single concept and theme. Mr. Fox’s desires are not as simple as “a better house” or “more danger and excitement.” As he admits later in the film, what he wants is to be the fantastic individual the film’s title suggest that he is, someone who amazes everyone by accomplishing the impossible. This idea does get explained outright, but Mr. Fox’s realization that what he wants may not be what he needs is played more subtly. There are a couple of big speeches, but they are much less direct than “Now I know I can be fantastic by just leading a normal life.”

The secondary plot of the film revolves around the Foxes’ son Ask. While Mr. Fox is worrying that his glory days are gone forever, the adolescent Ash is experiencing more than the normal amount of youthful angst trying to live up to his father’s legacy. His problem is further emphasized by the arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson, who has come to stay with the family while his father battles a serious bout of double pneumonia. Kristofferson is a natural athlete, everything that Ash wants to be. Making matters worse, Mr. Fox is greatly impressed with Kristofferson’s skills and Ask only looks worse by comparison. Ash’s character is a careful balancing act. He remains sympathetic because of his relatable desire to win his father’s approval, despite the fact that he never actually say “I want my dad to say the things that he says about Kristofferson about me.” But he spend much of the movie taking out his frustrations on Kristofferson, even going so far as to tease him about his father’s illness. Part of what keeps Ash from being totally unlikable is that his relationship with Kristofferson gets better and worse throughout the course of the movie as Ash tries to figure out how to deal with his feelings of inadequacy. One of my favorite scenes comes early on, when Ash has to share hi room with Kristofferson. Ash continues to be nasty to his cousin, calling his sadness an act and refusing to give him a reasonable bed. Ash hears Kristofferson crying. He’s not so heartless as to continue being mean, but he doesn’t apologize or have a heart to heart with his cousin. It’s too early in the narrative for that. What he does instead is climb out of bed and turn on his toy train set. Without saying anything, the two foxes sit together and watch the train go around and around.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Fantastic Mr. Fox completely breaks the mold for animated films. It has talking animals. It’s based on a children’s book by a beloved author. It’s not even the triumphant return of puppet animation that Nightmare Before Christmas was back in the day. What it does do is remind viewers that animation can tell all kinds of stories, or at least provide fresh perspectives on the typical animated film subjects. It’s not quite like any other movie out there, animated or otherwise. Whether you’re like me and get excited by the possibility of animated film tackling every that live-action does, or you’re just looking for a fun, entertaining film that’s a little bit different, check out Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Trivia Time! This is a new idea I’m trying out to encourage you, dear readers, to participate. I’m going to ask you a question about the movie being discussed and you post your answers in the comments. If you don’t know the answer right away, you can search the internet. I won’t mind; you’ll still be learning something. The first person to respond with the correct answer will get a shout-out in the next article, along with a link to your personal website if you’d like. And of course, you’re welcome to comment whether or not you want to play the trivia game.

So here’s the question: There’s a song Fantastic Mr. Fox that’s a nod to another animated movie starring foxes. What’s the other movie and what’s the song?

Image in this article copyright Twentieth Century Fox.

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