The recently released stop-frame animated movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is hilarious, antic, and knowing. It is also heir to the greatest children’s literature tradition in the English language: the early twentieth-century British forest tale. When Mr. Fox’s badger lawyer, elegant in a three-piece suit, urges him not to buy property in a beech tree, or Mr. Fox’s possum janitor sways gently in a rocking chair, hands folded across his tightly buttoned flak jacket, we sense the spirit of Ratty, Mole, and Badger from The Wind in the Willows coming to life again.
But Fantastic Mr. Fox is no mere nostalgic voyage back into the sylvan world of Kenneth Grahame, A. A. Milne, and Ernest Shepard. It pulses with a thoroughly modern, ironic energy, accompanied by a joyous soundtrack of the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and adrenaline-fueled drumming. And it allows the still-feral nature of its worldly beasts to break through their civilized demeanor far more than their Edwardian ancestors did, to hilarious effect. Seated before a plate of freshly cooked waffles, the debonair Mr. Fox, who prides himself on his urbane after-dinner toasts, pauses a moment in contemplation before plunging his entire head into the stack, accompanied by loud snorts and flying pieces of dough.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has sworn off chicken raids at the behest of his wife (Meryl Streep), the former Bonnie to his Clyde, and has taken up the safer profession of journalism, contributing the “Fox About Town” column to the weekly Gazette, which no one seems to read. He aspires to higher things, however: living in a hole in a ground “makes me feel poor,” he complains philosophically. So, defying his lawyer (Bill Murray), who warns him about usurious mortgage rates and dangerous neighbors, he buys a home in the upper trunk of a beech tree, after getting a tour from a blasé metro-, if not homosexual, stoat realtor. His new aerial apartment overlooks the estates of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean—chicken, duck, and turkey-and-apple farmers, respectively, the meanest men in the valley. The temptation of the nearby livestock proves too great. “How can a fox be happy without a chicken in his mouth?” Mr. Fox asks himself. After the inevitable daring poultry raids, the farmers, led by an increasingly psychotic Bean (Michael Gambon), declare all-out war on the thief, escalating their firepower against the Fox manse to nearly nuclear levels of devastation, to no ultimate effect.
Director Wes Anderson weaves a series of marvelous subplots and fantastically observed characters around this archetypal story of animal triumph over human planning. The most acutely rendered relationship occurs between the Foxes’ young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who has come to stay with the Foxes while his father recuperates from pneumonia. Mr. Fox, in his time, was the school champion at whack-bat, an insanely complicated parody of cricket played with a burning pine cone. Ash, however, keeps getting benched by his coach. Alas, Kristofferson, who has never played whack-bat before, is a natural, as he is in every endeavor he undertakes, to the despair of the short, self-conscious Ash. Ruthlessly meritocratic, Mr. Fox even chooses Kristofferson, rather than Ash, as an accomplice in his chicken heists. What’s worse, the nerdily self-controlled Kristofferson responds to Ash’s efforts at revenge—he spreads a rumor that Kristofferson is afflicted by beagle ticks and lice—with laconic calm. In one poignant scene in Ash’s bedroom, a pajama-clad Kristofferson asks meekly if he has to keep sleeping on the floor under Ash’s elevated electric train set. Told that he must, he lies back under the scaffolding, and a gentle sniffling is heard in the dark. Ash climbs down from his bunk bed and turns on the train, and the two sit silently watching as it whirs round the tracks.
At the other end of subtlety is the growing megalomania of Farmer Bean, whose sallow skin, hollow eye sockets, and thin lips recall a scheming advisor to a corrupt Renaissance prince. Bean belongs to the tradition of obsessive hunters, from Ahab to Wile E. Coyote, whose increasingly desperate schemes for destruction always wind up foiled by their prey. After a particularly futile effort at capturing his nemesis, an enraged Bean silently and methodically demolishes the interior of the farmers’ trailer-command post, while his two fellow farmers look on in paralyzed alarm.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is visually striking, played out first against a bright orange, open landscape, then against a dense English country village. The foxes walk on long, straight legs, as delicate as ballet dancers’. Brechtian supertitles demarcate the episodes; distance shots occasionally show the characters as two-dimensional, Gumby-like figures swept up in a moving frieze. And while the script abounds in amusing postmodernisms, such as “What’s the subtext here?,” the designers don’t pass up the opportunities for adorableness that their furry creatures offer. The animals don burglars’ stocking caps, including one made with a tube sock, for their nocturnal plundering. A swig of stolen grape juice leaves Ash with a large pink smudge around his mouth like a lipstick rose.
The story concludes with a fairly standard diversity message, after having ironically undercut one parental version of it. When Mrs. Fox reassures her perpetually angry son, “There’s something fantastic about being different,” he responds: “Not to me; I prefer being an athlete.” One thing that’s not conventional about this comedy, however, is its family values. I haven’t seen a human film comedy in recent years in which the parents were not divorced, a requirement that is about more than creating additional plot possibilities. Divorce has not yet hit the animal kingdom, however. If a parent is missing in an animated movie, it’s due to death, not divorce. Fantastic Mr. Fox contains a myriad of seemingly content, intact families, an image that one can only hope is forward- rather than backward-looking.
In an interview for Collider.com, Wes Anderson graciously declared himself in debt to Roald Dahl, who wrote the book on which Anderson’s script is based. Anderson sells himself short. Dahl’s book is a rather unpleasant, stripped-down tale, lacking nearly all of Anderson’s subplots and finely wrought characters.
Anderson has also for the moment bested animation powerhouse Pixar, whose recent offerings, from the frenetic The Incredibles to the cloyingly P.C. Wall*E, rely on technical wizardry to overcome a deficit of character insight. Anderson has not committed himself to future animated features, which is a shame. He clearly has an instinctive grasp of the semiotics of human communication, and animation displays a director’s understanding of human emotions more vividly than does working with live actors, since nothing an animated actor does happens spontaneously.
It’s reassuring to know that the empathetic imagination that gave rise to the great children’s literature of the early twentieth century has not disappeared. While today’s animators may be the equals in cleverness and insight of the great children’s novelists, however, their brilliant product goes by in a matter of minutes. Film is no substitute for the leisurely occupation of a beautiful, strange world that the magisterial children’s novel allows. Entry into that world can provide mental solace over the course of a lifetime. Judging by a recent visit to the tiny children’s classics section of a New York City Borders Books, though, the audience for that literature may be disappearing. It will be a loss to children and to culture if today’s parents neglect the wildly creative monuments of children’s literature out of ignorance or indifference.
In the meantime, Fantastic Mr. Fox provides a marvelous conclusion to this holiday season, and, like all great works for children, offers even more delights to adults.