Retrospectives, Series, Shoumik's blogposts, Wes Anderson

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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 I’m A Wild Animal

Children’s movies are strange. They’re not really meant for children. They’re meant for the parents, who look to them for a moment of quiet, and they’re meant for the executives who make money off the merchandise. And sometimes, though rarely, they’re for the filmmaker who makes them. In an odd coincidence, 2009 saw two of them: Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

The two films are actually pretty similar in what they’re trying to do, if not in the way they go about it. Both adapt a classic of children’s literature and use the adaptation to draw out the themes, conflicts and ideas that resonate close to their own work. Jonze draws out the violence and melancholy in Sendak’s work while Anderson inserts his family issues and characteristic growth arc. Despite their origins both movies are clearly the work of their directors.

In fact, Fantastic Mr. Fox might be the most Andersonian of movies, stylistically and thematically. Anderson’s penchant for symmetrical composition:fmf03

production design precision:fmf04

and familial reconciliation:fmf05

are all present and accounted for. The one thing that seems to be missing is the whip pan. But that’s probably because of the difficulty of pulling off that trick in stop motion animation.

So it’s quite strange that the movie is so well regarded. After all, one of the chief complaints against Anderson has always been his innate Andersonian-ness.

But Fantastic Mr. Fox has a few tricks up its sleeve when dealing with those kinds of critics. First, it’s the jauntiest comedy Anderson’s made since Rushmore. And it might just be his jauntiest. After all, Rushmore has a darker, more emotional second half to balance out its comedic first. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is a romp all the way, deciding to resolve its character conflicts through a sprightly little heist that brings together its entire animal cast. It’s just more lighthearted and fun. Especially compared to the sharper edge of Anderson’s last two features.fmf06

Another reason is the medium. Stop-motion animation is, by definition, a very precise art that rewards fussiness and detail. And few directors are as defined by their fussiness as Anderson. It’s a natural fit. Anderson gets to make the precise fantastic world he wants and the critics get to marvel at the detail without feeling claustrophobic.

The animation itself also helps. It has a tactile herky-jerky quality, like when someone does the little hand gesture meaning “different”. It looks artificial, but lends the film a bit of loose-ness, a lovably rough quality that offsets its stuffier qualities.

The music helps tremendously in this regard. Alexandre Desplat takes over regular scoring duties from Mark Mothersbaugh (most of the score for The Darjeeling Limited used pre-existing recordings) with Fantastic Mr. Fox and the change is superb. At least to my tastes. Mothersbaugh’s tinkly baroque pieces were excellent fits for the worlds of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. But the delicate prissiness of that approach would have been a terrible match for Mr. Fox. Desplat’s score is more varied and robust. He hasn’t dropped the xylophone, but he adds a lot of range. Americana, folk riffs, even a bit of Ennio Morricone gets tossed into the mix and it’s absolutely fantastic. It might just be a matter of texture, but it broadens the palette, adding some darkness to the mix.fmf08

Which, by the way, is another lovely addition. A lot of it is Dahl, no doubt, but Fantastic Mr. Fox really loves playing with ideas of death and bodily mutilation:

As well it should. This is children’s fantasy after all and very few forms of storytelling are as enraptured with the gruesome and the grotesque. It’s an absurdly easy way to pump up the stakes. And the lip smacking glee with which Fantastic Mr. Fox leaps into that trope truly warms my cold, dark heart.

And, speaking of the heart of things, I can’t help love the silly way they keep reminding us of the characters’ animalistic natures:fmf09

It’s a great running bit that just keeps getting funnier over time. And it gets back to the thematic backbone of the story: Fox’s struggle against his essential nature.

George Clooney is nigh perfect casting. He’s one of the few movie stars we’ve got left and he brings the full weight of his charisma to proceedings. There is no earthly reason “Oh and Kylie, thank you for the minnow. It was superb.” should play as a laugh line. But the delivery of the line, combined with Fox’s little mannerism, puts a stupid grin on my face. As does his very particular writing style:fmf10

And this charm is important. After all, Fox is something of a selfish douchenozzle. Even more so than Royal Tenenbaum. Royal might have screwed up his kids, but Fox endangers the lives of a large and vibrant underground/woodland community just to satisfy his own ego.

He is something like the perfect protagonist for this movie: charming but callous. And the two sides are so well balanced that when we get to the wolf scene it plays as both somewhat profound:fmf11

and utterly ridiculous. Which is essentially what the whole film is attempting all throughout. It’s like eighty-seven minutes of variation on the Rushmore joke of Dirk Calloway’s infuriated letter to Max, written in multicolored crayon. And it works.

But, again, we should come back to the question of who it works for. It certainly worked for the critics, who decided to overlook the retread of themes and ideas to focus on the energy and fun of the proceedings. It certainly worked for me, but I am something of an Anderson partisan. But does it work for children? Is it even meant to work for children? Sure, the simplification of Anderson’s regular themes might seem like a compromise to a child audience, but Anderson doesn’t dial back on his legalese patter-style dialogue. Nor does he skimp on the density of character detail in the production design. There’s an autumnal warmth to proceedings that might invoke memories of childhood, but little to indicate that childhood is a significant concern.fmf12

No, I think Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t for children. It’s for adults who like to read children’s stories. It’s got all the requisite elements if a children’s story: a quick moving, high stakes story with a moral, charmingly detailed and inconsistent world building and hints of darkness without any danger. But the dialogue scenes are a bit too fast and a bit too heavy. The concerns are a bit too adult. And the overall tone a smidge too nostalgic. That’s probably the dominant mode of Fantastic Mr. Fox, nostalgic. It uses an old technique to tell an old story with old songs and old jokes. It’s the kind of movie people look back on with the “I wish they would make more like that. Like they used to.” filter. And it works. It’s a swift, precise romp through the elements of Anderson’s childhood. It’s also his least ambitious work. But who cares, as long as you’re having this much fun?

Just don’t look up the details of how Anderson directed the movie. It’ll make you wanna take a whack-bat to the little cuss.

Retrospective links:

Main Page

Introduction

Bottle Rocket (1996)

Rushmore (1998)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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7 Comments

  1. Just thought I might add:

    The “Dirk Calloway” type humor (which is touched on in Rushmore, and which pretty much defines this movie) totally gets to me. As such, the wolf scene in this film may in fact be one of my all time favorite moments in cinematic history.

    • Shoumik Shoumik

      Just saw Moonrise Kingdom and it’s completely full of that kinda stuff. I think you might enjoy it.

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