by Brett Parker
For as visionary as most contemporary auteurs can be, it seems the one form of cinema they tend to avoid is animation, which can periodically prove to be the most visually arresting aspect of the medium. Perhaps this is because most serious filmmakers feel that a strong sense of humanity and drama can be skewered in translating a heartfelt story into cartoon form. That’s what makes Wes Anderson’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, so significant. While the film’s use of traditional stop-motion animation may give the film the look of cutesy children’s fare, Anderson has used this genre to deliver the very essence of his trademark themes with very little compromise. He’s not churning out a sanitized children’s tale as a fun, cinematic exercise but is using animation to unearth his usual ideals of family, melancholy, and sneaky exuberance in a newly expressive light.
In a stop-motion universe in which animals talk and exist like human suburbanites, we meet the Fantastic Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a sly and cheerful thrill-seeker who specializes in stealing chickens from dangerous human farmers. Mr. Fox lives for the thrill of the hunt and finds he’s most alive when he’s acting out elaborate chicken heists like the wild animal he is. He proudly fancies his live of cunning thievery until the fateful day when his loving wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces she’s pregnant and wants to start a family with him. This causes Mr. Fox to give up on his dangerous adventures and embark on a simpler life.
Years pass and Mr. Fox has uneasily settled into the role of a family man. He writes a column for a local newspaper and has moved his family into a beautiful tree that resembles a typical suburban home. Both he and Mrs. Fox are raising a strange son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman) who Mr. Fox sort of wishes were a little more like Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), his athletic nephew. While most would find this quiet, family life more than satisfying, Mr. Fox is gnawed at by his animal instincts and yearns for the excitement he once found in stealing chickens. As his eyes wander towards the chicken farms of his sinister neighbors, Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), and Bunce (Hugo Guiness), Fox can’t resist staging secret heists to steal from these evil farmers and satisfy his thieving impulses.
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker known for painting his frames with landscapes of cartoon colors and offbeat mannerisms. What we remember most strongly about his films is the peculiar details he pours into creating his characters’ personal styles and colorful surroundings, usually reflecting the predominantly quirky nature of their mindset. In this sense, the relationship between stop-motion animation and Wes Anderson makes for a perfect marriage, for the attention-to-detail that undoubtedly goes into creating a stop-motion world deeply satisfies Anderson’s need to pour his own personality into every frame. Through the animation direction of Mark Gustafson, Anderson is able to employ the oldest form of stop-motion art, the kind used in the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV movie. This not only displays Anderson’s love for vintage cinematic techniques but allows him to put his offbeat touch into every minute detail within the frame. Every time we see a character or see a location, we feel like we can almost reach out and touch them. There’s a vivid texture and tangible feel to everything in the foreground, made more effective by Anderson’s whimsical touch.
Even though we’re in territory surrounded by talking animals, the characters of The Fantastic Mr. Fox share just about everything in common with Anderson’s human characters. Through Mr. Fox, we can see Anderson’s trademark archetype of the relentless yet optimistic schemer. Like Dignan plotting a heist or Steve Zissou out to kill a Jaguar Shark, Mr. Fox is driven by a tunnel-vision goal that he feels will bring personal fulfillment at long last. Mr. Fox is also an obvious soul brother of Royal Tenenbaum, a wily rogue who tries cheerfully to turn his family unit onto his hedonistic and compulsive idealism. An important Anderson theme that pulsates throughout this adaptation is that of dysfunctional family stress. Like the Tenenbaum children or the Whitman Brothers, the foundation of the Fox family is threatened by each member’s personal flaws and the reservations each member holds towards each other. Ash feels isolated by his father’s favoritism of Kristofferson over him and Mrs. Fox deeply despairs of her husbands self-absorbed impulses. Yet in the end, Anderson employs his usual ideal that faith in the family unit may provide the perfect solace from personal inadequacy and existential dread.
Perhaps the strongest Anderson trademark felt within this outing is a sense of loss and acceptance. Anderson’s characters tend to find themselves crippled by a significant personal loss and try to curb the internal damage in the best way they know how. Whether you follow Max Fischer as he struggles to regain his Rushmore lifestyle or Steve Zissou as he seeks revenge on an exotic shark, Anderson consistently paints a picture of bruised characters seeking ways to heal their wounds. What eats away at the characters in The Fantastic Mr. Fox are repressed feelings of animal instincts. Ash feels he can’t live up to them while Mr. Fox feels he needs to surrender to them. There’s a fascinating scene in which Mr. Fox tries to rally his critter pals against the evil farmers by highlighting each of their basic animal characteristics. Yet Anderson usually shows his characters finding acceptance in their flawed states. They may not reach their original goals, but they grow a deeper appreciation for what they do have. There’s a beautiful scene towards the end where Mr. Fox regards a Wolf in the wild. The Wolf is an obvious symbol for the Wild Animal ideal Mr. Fox once celebrated but must now abandon in order to preserve the family unit he cherishes. After failing to make verbal communication, the Wolf just simply waves to him and runs away. Mr. Fox waves back, finally saying goodbye to his wild animal lifestyle.
What’s most interesting about the film’s ending is the way it may offer a bit of hope to struggling families out there in these tough economic times. The ending finds Mr. Fox and his family forced out of their dream home and forced to rebuild their life in a smaller, more urban-like setting. In order to survive, the Foxes look to a local supermarket and realize they must ride the waves of consumer culture if they want to stay afloat in their current world. While an ending like this could seem rather bittersweet, Anderson injects a cheerful optimism into it by enforcing his ideals of strong family bonding. The Foxes realize as long as they have each other and continue to love to the fullest, they can overcome any hardship. Perhaps this is Anderson slyly trying to ease contemporary anxieties over societal issues by enforcing important humanist values. For if Anderson’s dysfunctional characters can find true happiness in their world and in each other, then there’s hope for the rest of us!
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is an offbeat family film that can be satisfied on many different levels. Parents wanting to take their kids to a satisfying family film will be delighted by the whimsical energy and creative flourishes this one dispenses while also being surprised by its hidden wisdom. More thoughtful moviegoers will be satisfied by the film’s subtle sense of character depth and humanist musings usually unconventional to most family outings. And of course, devoted Wes Anderson fans will be deeply satisfied to discover that he powerfully serves up each of his auteurist ideals in an animated gem that can stand with his most thoughtful of works.