Fantastic Mr. Fox

I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m a big Wes Anderson fan, so of course I loved it. There’s so much to discuss: the clothing, the strangely touching closeups, the impeccable voice work, the skill with which the makers direct your attention in the first minutes. It’s also not a perfect film by any means. The last third drags. (I wouldn’t say I was bored. I was impatient.) But for now I’d like to concentrate on how the movie executes a theme common to Anderson’s work and family films, and in my opinion trumps them both.

Like every Dahl book, the story pits rebellious individualism against a stifling social code. Like many recent children’s films, Fantastic Mr Fox attempts to forge a middle path between the extremes of selfish individualism and soulless conformity. But it suggests that the path is less stable, less certain, than we’d hope.

Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney–it’s the role of his career) was once a successful chicken thief. But he’s settled down and become a family man. His old urges kick in, however, and he concocts a grand heist of three local farmers. Their retaliation endangers his family and the entire community, and Mr. Fox has to apply his talents to save his friends.

It’s a plot point familiar to Wes Anderson fans. His focal characters misplace their emotions and pursue selfish goals until realizing how their unique skills can serve others. Rushmore is a story of artistic transformation. Teenaged Max Fischer produces plays that mainly call attention to his immense talent. But when the world refuses to conform to his wishes, Max finds himself in danger of losing his friends. Max returns to the stage in order to right wrongs and honor the people he’s met, using art to reconcile differences, rekindle friendships, and provide emotional closure. It’s my favorite movie of the ’90s.

Anderson’s other features employ similar turnarounds. Royal (of The Royal Tenenbaums) first schemes for self-benefit, then for the benefit of his children. Documentarian Steve Zissou (from The Life Aquatic) has lost sight of the sublime nature of the ocean thanks to the pleasures of fame, the expectations that come from his financial backers and audiences, and the tragic death of his dear friend at the hands of a rare and elusive shark. Finding that shark reconstitutes his being. Each of these characters find purpose only after suffering losses, although Anderson and his characters often project the full emotional wallop of these losses in finicky styles, juvenile attitudes, and reckless behavior. The opulence of his films is density in disguise.

Contrast these efforts with the most enjoyable family films covering similar terrain. Pixar’s ten films concentrate heavily on resolving the tensions between individual and community spirit. This is most evident in Brad Bird’s films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, in which extraordinary individuals are first encouraged to hide their genius, turn to using it surreptitiously, then direct it outward, saving worlds and stirring memories. This theme also appears in the Toy Story franchise, Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, and even Cars. Pixar is not alone here, either; consider the Shrek films, in which various weirdos from fantasy literature quit their isolated lives and find love and purpose in a shared life. Our heroes (such as Buzz Lightyear) struggle mightily trying to figure out how to serve others while remaining themselves. When they figure things out, it’s usually in the form of an epiphany that overwhelms the narrative trajectory. They suggest finding that balance is inevitable, and the resolution is tidy. Of course they do; they’re movies for kids.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is different. It’s still, mainly, a kid’s movie. I saw it in a theater packed with children, who laughed along with every sight gag. What I mean to say is that we’re brought in sight of striking that balance, finding a suitable public role for individual talents, and then it’s pulled away. By the end, we’re not even sure what those talents are.

Mr. Fox and his family, along with other wild animals, live in imitation of human beings throughout the film. They buy homes they can’t afford, wear suits, and hold human-like jobs. Mr. Fox wants to catch chickens, but the introduction of humans to his world has domesticated him. We never get to see the animals in the movie in a pre-human state of grace. But we’re to infer that humanity has colonized the animal world so successfully that animals are completely out of touch with their “true” nature. Mr. Fox admits, first guiltily, then proudly, that he’s a wild animal, and he attempts to rouse his fellow animals into combat by using their latin names, invoking their DNA, and utilizing their “animal” skills in an attack on the farmers.

Mr. Fox and his friends find success with this strategy (although, in keeping with Dahl and Anderson, that success comes at a price). But are they really turning to their animal natures? Mr. Fox thinks he’s being a wild animal by stealing. But his particular gift is in manipulating human security systems, marshaling his fellow animals, and buoying them with promises of the future–all gifts we more readily associate with humans. Badger presents himself as a demolitions expert, which comes in handy for providing a counterattack. Mrs. Fox uses her skill as a painter to assist in battle strategy. Ash fulfills his dream of being an “athlete” not by applying pure physical talent, but for reading a human environment as if it were a sports field. Kylie, the opossum, asks Mr. Fox what his natural talent is, and receives no real answer, which dissatisfies both him and me.

Nor is it at all certain that the characters are learning how to successfully channel their natures into assisting the community. Mr. Fox’s return to thievery produces blowback on an intense level. First he loses his tail, making him more human than ever. Later, his home is destroyed by the farmers. Eventually, the entire community is displaced. Fair enough, he hasn’t had his epiphany yet. When he realizes the consequences of his actions, and orchestrates his neighbors into a new home, they set up in a sewer system. Once they lived on the margins of the human world. Now they live beneath it, becoming even more dependent on a world that looks in their direction with hostility. The final scene of the film, in which Mr. Fox finds the path to a new food source, a grocery store, is not the tidy solution it first appears. The store is owned by the same farmers who drove Mr. Fox and company out in the first place. When they find out that the animals are ransacking their store, they’ll respond in the same manner as they did to the original thefts.

I don’t really know if Mr. Fox and his friends would be better off some other way, though. And that gives me pause. The film demands that we find some way to make our individual pursuits worthwhile to others, but it argues that the path is fraught with peril, that costs and sacrifices will be made, and we’ll never feel quite as confident about our position as we wish. Those are some hard truths. Toward the end of the film, Mr. Fox, Kylie, Ash, and cousin Kristofferson spy a wolf in the distance. Throughout the story, wolves had been discussed with fear and reverence by Fox and Kylie. The wolf they meet walks on all fours and does not speak. He’s still wild. He’s also alone. Mr. Fox raises a fist in a gesture of solidarity, which the wolf returns. Everything stops for this exchange, each side privately wondering if the other is better or worse off for the choices he’s made.

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