Mr. Fox: Not All that Fantastic

Dear CF,

I finally saw Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox today and didn’t like it much. I was surprised: I worship Roald Dahl, and I think I might be the only person I know who still defends The Life Aquatic. I am either a fascinating contrarian or totally lacking in taste. Still, not liking the movie left me with a bad feeling in my mouth, and I am going to work through that feeling here.

Impressions, more or less in the order in which they occurred:

  • Gorgeous, gorgeous lighting
  • Music!
  • Love the quilty textures!
  • Opening scene: Adam and Eve by the tree? Nope. I just see Milton everywhere. He talks a lot and they really want us to get the joke: he likes to give her two choices and talk her out of the one she makes. In both cases, the “scenic route” is the one that leads to him getting them into trouble. Reminds me of that Tom Waits song: “I’ll always take the long way home.”
  • Ah. She’s pregnant. That’s why she ran a little gingerly during the hunt.
  • We don’t find out how they get out of the trap. Okay—we’re forced to conclude he can get them out of impossible scrapes.
  • Super-duper ’50s family scene. Whew. I mean. He peruses the paper and chats idly about his column while she cooks. And serves him without sitting down herself. She’s wearing a Mad Men dress?
  • Fine. Whatever. It’s a cute kid’s film. Get over it.
  • She’s reassuring them that they’re not poor. He’s a great provider. Yay.
  • He worries nobody reads him. Hm. Could be interesting? (ETA: it isn’t. Except as a background detail that explains why he has to talk at everybody throughout the entire film in bad toasts—which in turn explains why nobody reads him.)
  • He doesn’t want to live in the hole. Hole=domestic life/not enough status/womb. Also slang for the isolation chamber in prison. Got it. I may be able to predict this film from here on out.
  • Weird kid. In a Wes Anderson film. Shocker.
  • Can’t get over the weirdness of a Wes Anderson movie without the Wes Anderson facial reactions. Funny to see a style so dependent on expression on inexpressive faces.
  • The tree is nice! Funny touches–pine is better than oak? The super! Ha!
  • He wants to live in a treehouse. He is infantile. Got it. Mr. M points out they’re buying a house they can’t afford. Like America! Topical!
  • I like the possum. Minnows!
  • The real-estate stuff is a smart and cool spin on the trend of  making a kid movie appealing to grown-ups. Unlike Shrek, say. I like that it doesn’t patronize kids and lets them be bored by details they overhear everyday. (Interest rates, etc.) That’s important to being a kid—the dullness and pervasiveness of adult dialogue—and it’s often missing in kid’s films.
  • That said, I’M less charmed than bored by the real estate details.
  • They set up house. Delightful kitchen tile. Owen Wilson’s character materializes in the form of a hot fox (heh) named Kristofferson or somesuch.
  • Actual Owen Wilson plays a coach.
  • I like how incoherent they make whackball. It reflects exactly how I, as a kid, understood real sports.
  • Sigh. Here’s the midlife crisis.
  • Beagles love blueberries! Again, Fox’s insanity miraculously prevails! He is magic! Delightfully magic! His Master Plans work!
  • Funny that the chickens don’t talk. Prey is just meat, even when it’s alive.
  • Tangent: I kind of wish there was Wes Anderson bingo. We should make it up if it doesn’t exist. Saintly wise wife with five lines per film: check. Who manchild takes for granted: check. Weird kid: check. Tuned-out dad who is nevertheless fascinating: check. Pseudo father/son relationship: check. Quiet and sort of poetic moment of empathy between young’uns: check. Moment of transcendence when boychild does the scary thing manchild values: check. Death: check. Wild animal that symbolizes wildness and the way real life shows the smallness of the manchild’s vision: check. Total affirmation of manchild’s craving for attention despite whole movie dedicated to challenging it and forcing self-examination: check. Society’s willingness to forgive manchild his having brought about the destruction of all their homes: che—wait.
  • What?
  • How on earth do all the animals, in a film that’s so much about a middle-class family struggling to make it, a film made during a recession when people are actually losing their homes, forgive Fox so easily for relocating them TO A SEWER?
  • Okay. I mean, I get that this isn’t American Beauty, and it doesn’t have to show suburbia’s every ugly surface, but this? Is totally absurd. He gets off way, waaaaaaay too easy.
  • Seriously. He loses his tail? That’s IT?
  • By the way, the evil man wearing the tail as a tie is really, successfully morbid.
  • The turncoat villain-rat is Southern and apparently black. And one-toothed. Huh.
  • Let the record also show that he is awesome.
  • Oh. And alcoholic.
  • No class issues here at all.
  • I like that they go ahead and skip Fox’s history with the rat. He’s the top athlete!  He and the rat have a long history of battles waged! You know there will be a showdown, admissions of mutual regard and a dollop of nostalgia.
  • Weird kid likes comic books. Dad is obsessed with “bandit hats.” Coincidence? I THINK NOT.
  • The sock-for-hat business is cute.
  • Ah, Mrs. Fox’s chat with our hero as they’re digging for their lives. Her claim that his habits have made their future  “predictable”  is an interesting reframing of the masculine midlife crisis, which is usually triggered by predictability and here is producing it. The consequence of domesticity is ennui; the consequence of his following his “wild” instincts is death. Awright. The movie understands its cliches. Excellent!
  • The wife has been sent away to comfort the women. Oh look. A cliche.
  • Now the men get to be awesome! (In a limited way.)
  • I’m trying not to be pissed off about that. I really am. In the immortal words of the Walrus, let us talk of other things! Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax (which I always thought was actually CEILING-wax until I typed it that way and realized it made no sense, one does not need wax for ceilings unless one is a bee), of cabbages and kings!
  • Okay, but SERIOUSLY? You had MERYL STREEP and you sent her off to tell the women that HELP is coming? You had Meryl Streep querulously ask Fox “IS help coming?” without demanding any details? TRUSTING the moron she admits she should never have married? Conclusion: she is a moron too.
  • However, since this seems to be yet another movie with a Magical Female (the equivalent of the Magical Negro, whose only narrative function is to show the protagonist the Right Way and track his progress thither), we are supposed to believe—because she says it mournfully, with tears in her eyes—that Mr. Fox’s problem is that he always wants to be “fantastic.” This is how I think the movie wants me to understand his defect.
  • Wow, I got really mean all of a sudden.
  • The thing is, I don’t actually like any of these characters.
  • Maybe it’s the animation? The faces? Why don’t I feel anything for them?
  • Heal and grow.
  • Heal and grow.
  • Well, my not caring much about them doesn’t make me want to stop watching. It’s still eye candy.
  • So, we were avoiding cliches and the predictable.
  • The plot just turned into Chicken, Run.
  • Which is a retelling of The Great Escape.
  • Mr. Fox is, in turn, Steve Zissou if he’d married poor.
  • With some Wallace and Gromit thrown in for good measure.
  • I like that the movie relishes the unslickness of everything. The badly executed rescues (devolved from the picture-perfect blueberry-plot at the beginning), etc.
  • Sheesh. I almost forgot: the “we’re wild animals” defense. (Which, by the way, Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made on his Atlantic blog, defending the dudely right to comment on a Freedom Rider’s beauty (as compared to ladies with boob jobs on magazines) because it’s “honest” and “we want to be reverent” but aw shucks, they just can’t. They’re too honest! “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Coates says, before issuing an apology thanks to the intervention of his Magical Female, who set him straight).
  • The wild animal. I worry about it. I do. Mr. M. has a very smart read on how the movie invalidates Fox’s “wild animals” mid-life crisis that I think is actually much smarter than what’s there. He thinks (among other things) that Mr. Fox is the opposite of wild and loves the fantasy of wildness. To support that, Fox’s rousing speech exhorting the animals to be their awesome wild selves depends on calling their LATIN NAMES. And it’s cool that the movie gets the joke of this when he tries it on the wolf. Canis lupus lupus is the wrong thing to say in his presence.
  • It’s possible, too, that we’re supposed to see Fox’s narration of Ash’s awesome maneuver in sports terms (basically the opposite of wild animalhood—he’s the best at an elaborately organized sport) as supporting this. I’m partly convinced.
  • (Also? I love the “bread” karate mantra. Love love love love that. Kristofferson training Ash while blindfolded via arcane directives was the most pleasurable moment of the whole movie.)
  • Still, Mrs. Fox says she understands why Fox ruined their lives: she says  “we’re wild animals” and says she should never have married him. That the Magical Female assumes this posture gives me pause.
  • (That doesn’t get resolved in their marriage at all, by the by. The only reason we’re supposed to be happy by the end is because he pulled his “Fantastic” trick where he keeps everybody in the dark, again, forces them to trust him for the jollies he gets from making them all think he’s fantastic, again—an investment in his own jouissance that has gotten them all nearly killed multiple times.  Still.  He is so charming! Everything turned out fine! He apologized for keeping her in the dark (even though he’s urging her up a manhole—GET IT? He’s getting them out of the hole she never wanted to leave! Again!!). Anyway, why WORRY about why it all happened? Go up the ladder! Into the open air!
  • Oh shit. She’s pregnant. Again.
  • ‘Sokay though! He can provide for them while they live in their Soviet bloc/sewer with other dispossessed animal families. They will eat crackers made of turkey giblets instead of real giblets, and fake apples, which, after all have stars on them! Hurrah! Fake supermarket processed food. He is no longer a yuppie locavore. He has stopped worrying about their being poor. He is over it. He has done away with his own bourgeois preoccupations like Escrow and what his son is wearing. And he’s annihilated everyone else’s too in the bargain! Yay! He has liberated them all against their will!
  • He is  conscious of vegetarianism, though. Good dude. Though the badgers might be making up their walnut allergy.
  • Oh good. The toast. They’re begging him for a toast? Who in this movie who would beg this character to talk?
  • He understands he isn’t as wild as he thought. He drycleans his tail!
  • Magical Female says “You are quote-fantastic-unquote.” And we are relieved that she, at least, seems to have a sense of irony.

Okay. So that was my initial reaction. Then I read some of the reviews that loved it (basically all of them—it got 93% on Tomatometer). I was particularly moved by this review of Stephanie Zacharek’s from Salon:

I’m not sure I can explain why Anderson’s trademark dry, clever patter seems less tortured, and so much funnier and more believable, when it’s emerging from the mouths of animal puppets with scruffy, disarranged fur. But “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is one of the few recent movies I can think of that truly captures the vibe of a childhood spent largely with books. I’m not talking about the overrated notion of “being returned to a sense of childlike wonder,” or anything like that. I’m talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience: Looking at all the details in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — the character’s wayward whiskers, their little vests, the mansionette hideaways they’ve dug for themselves in the ground — brought back the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.

I love this description, and I wish I felt it a little more. I felt much attempted poetry, some of which fell a little flat. (The shared moment between Ash and his cousin with the train is a notable exception.) I really do think Anderson’s style is suited to extremely expressive faces whose affect is a yearning for recuperated innocence. I love Zacharek’s take on it, though, and the connection to Milne, which operates in exactly the space of simultaneously semi-fantastic and domestic, is really interesting.

Milne, of course, tells a much smaller tale. And this was a big story with lots of action and lots of characters, many of whose fortunes got a bit too sloppily shoved aside. Monsters, Inc., achieves similar scope and creates a similarly complex society without glossing over those gaps. (Then again, Pixar has story down to a goddamn art.)

As much as I’d like to think the reader-kid I was would love this—and as true as it is that I would obsess over every delicious visual detail in this film—it’s also true that I would have lots of obsessive questions. There are plenty of things this film overlooks because it’s a bit too interested in an adult and retrospective view of childhood innocence. It forgets what kind of adult society it set up at the beginning. It forgets the limits and constraints and laws that produce the crisis, so interested is it in the thriller it becomes. Makes sense: Anderson’s priorities aren’t sociological. His imagination lives in the afterglow of a resurrected past. It thrives on sadness,  on an adult’s quixotic loyalty to a childhood dream, and on the brutal way real life blisters that dream (that’s why the submarine in The Life Aquatic is rusted and creaky). The jaguar shark and the wolf aren’t just wildness, according to this reading: they’re the “pure talent” Fox tries to remind the animals of; they’re unadulterated childhood undamaged by self-consciousness, responsibility and loss.

I love all that about him, but that aesthetic seems unsuited to a kid’s movie since they’re, you know, kids. On the other hand, lots of great kid’s movies are draped with nostalgia, so perhaps it isn’t a problem.  There’s plenty of adventure. Still, if I were a kid and I’d seen this film, I’d have one question for Anderson: Why don’t the chickens talk?

Fondly,

M

6 Responses to Mr. Fox: Not All that Fantastic

  1. Carla Fran says:

    Dear Millicent,
    I will also heartily defend the Life Aquatic, but I have to differ with you here. I think the Foxface here, while yes, is in a pattern, is still a great pleasure, especially if you happen to like the pattern. The themes of wildness and quaintness are well executed, and it pulls that neat trick of childhood delight that does not pander. Unlike Shrek et al that work to entertain the parents that are stuck in the theater with their kids who are not in on the joke, this movie does Dahl’s signature (though in the signature of Anderson instead) of letting the kids in on the secret that life is often nasty, brutal, and short. I like how dark it is, I like how unhappy of an ending it is to see animals dancing in a grocery store, and in all, how it shows the damage of the modern ego’s ability to self-narrate. The Underground Man, gone foxy?

    Great question about the chickens…they never wear clothes, but were they ever wild? Maybe they are reduced to objects because they are farmed? Or is it just one of those things where we all remove “humanity” from the things we eat, so to the humans the foxes are soulless, and to the foxes, the chickens are soulless. So the chickens, speaking their own particular language, are doing the same to the pillbugs?

    Meryl Streep was wasted, but she gets lines like “in the end we are all going to die,” which is amazingly dark for a kid’s movie. And yes, Rushmore is the one story that Anderson is destined to tell in every story he creates, but I am okay with this because most writers I love are stuck in an orbit they report from different views of. I hear Anderson is a douche in real life, but I defend this work, and think it was a smart way to switch up the overexposure of what he continues to harp on about.

    He’s got lady issues, mostly I think because the story he tells is about male adolescence. Hemingway would not be able to stand Anderson. Which is interesting, because they both find some “truth” or “talent” (code for “manhood”) in the wild animal/warrior way, but they are both overdepending on myth.

    Dunno. But I liked Fantastic Fox a lot. Watched it twice. Love the train.

  2. Millicent says:

    Yay Life Aquatic! And the train, which stuck out as an amazing little moment to me too.

    Thoughts!

    “I like how dark it is, I like how unhappy of an ending it is to see animals dancing in a grocery store, and in all, how it shows the damage of the modern ego’s ability to self-narrate.”

    This is interesting. It didn’t strike me as dark at all. The grocery store dancing seemed like a rueful compromise that you put a good face on. In Dahl, such an ending would be devastating, so now that you say it, I’m seeing glimmers of what you mean. I guess I didn’t feel it the darkness, but I want to hear you say more about this? Can you say more about where the intentional admissions of darkness creep in?

    In general, I’d say I find Dahl bleaker and more brutish than Anderson is ever willing to be. This isn’t a criticism of either; just an observation that they draw the line at “too much” at really different places. I mean, George’s Marvelous Medicine is about George conducting medical experiments on his grandmother. There’s the gross weirdness of all four of Charlie’s grandparents sharing the same bed, and how poverty reduces people. There’s the grotesquerie of Violet Beauregard as a blueberry. Children die and disappear. There’s a ton of seriously dark stuff in Dahl. Anderson seems very gentle in comparison.

    I like what you say about Mrs. Fox admitting that they will die, although I’m not convinced it’s as rare as all that. Isn’t death at the root of most good kids’ movies? (I’m thinking of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Never-Ending Story, Up.) What bugged me—and maybe this is the darkness you’re getting at—is that she says to him: “We depend TOTALLY on you. Unless you change, we will die.” And he doesn’t change. Is this then about children having to accept having whackadoodle parents at the helm? (And incidentally about wives having to accept crazy husbands?) Is that where the darkness of it lives?

    (Huh. I wonder if Anderson’s trademark unearned paternal hero-worship clashes with Dahl’s whackadoodle and unworthy parents. Parents in Dahl are silly, evil or dead; they’re never objects of emulation. Matilda’s parents are horrible. James’ are dead. Charlie’s are pitiable. Kids in Dahl’s world know better than to waste their emotional investments on a father. On the other hand, Dahl does have plenty of cool surrogate fathers who step in to help compensate for the shortcomings, which seems like shared ground.)

    Re: liking or hating the Rushmore pattern: I’m with you in a general sense. You either love or hate the Anderson aesthetic. And I think Anderson Bingo would be fun, but I don’t mean to shit on the formula. I love it more often than not, even if I sometimes feel uncomfortable with how I was seduced afterward. It’s a tasty recipe. And you’re right–Alice Munro (to pick an Odd Saint) retells the same story a billion times. I don’t really object to that. I probably didn’t make the point as well as I could have, but the point where the movie lost me was when it split from the Anderson formula.

    It surprised me, though, to hear you make the Rushmore parallel. Did you see lots of Rushmore in Mr. Fox? I must’ve missed it. It felt to me like late Anderson (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, with maybe a touch of Royal Tannenbaums). Barring Ash, whose POV we barely get, I saw mostly Bill Murrays and Gene Hackmans (and okay, some Danny Ocean). Are there Rushmore structures I’m missing? It’s been awhile, so I don’t have it fresh on my mind.

    I REALLY REALLY want to hear about this: “how it shows the damage of the modern ego’s ability to self-narrate.” I want to co-sign this, but I’m not 100% sure I get it?

  3. Carla Fran says:

    I would offer that Max Fisher and all the Bill Murrays and Gene Hackmans, and Mr. Fox are all images of the same character: man aswim in what he is and what he thinks/thought he would be. They all create fictions, and I offer that Rushmore has the least cartooned versions of the variations we see of Anderson’s spread: Max, the true adolescent, actually writes plays, but he also self mythologizes in reality (to the viewers extreme delight); Rushmore Murray, the true middle-aged adolescent, wants to rebuild and stumbles; Daddy Tennenbaum thinks he is the bees knees, constantly dupes his family; Steve Zissou is his own myth; the brothers of the Darjeeling limited swing between visions of ideal tourism and family.

    And this is where I connect Ally McBeal to Wes Anderson and modern mythmaking: soundtrack. McBeal’s therapist tells her to be sure to have a song in her head, a soundtrack. Anderson is usually a king of this, swinging our guts with rock and folk from the nooks and crannies of the past decades, making every character feel bigger. Max Fisher in a butler’s uniform with a box of bees is one thing. Max Fisher in slow motion with The Who wailing the lyrics “you are forgiven!” behind him, is magic. The insane accessorizing that Anderson is known for, and the music, all end up portraying characters that are crushingly aware of the life they are building, or hope others see them building, for themselves. It is the eternal adolescent pang, the self-narrative that whatever one is experiencing, it is more grand than the middle class. And he loves to show the juxtaposition of that dream with reality. Sometimes it ends sweet (Rushmore) sometimes it ends rough (Fox).

    And Fantastic Mr. Fox is a big layer cake of self narrative: The farmers tell themselves they are the richest and smartest, Fox is secure that he is the best speechmaker/loverman/thief/star around, Ash is an athlete. Ms. Fox and Christofferson are released from the adolescent cycle (just as Margaret Yang and Dirk are, and the eternal Angelica Huston). Women do seem to mature faster in Anderson’s stories (just like in real puberty!).

    I have more to say about the darkness of the grocery store, but am late for workshop! Here’s my start:

    Which brings me to the darkness of the grocery store. By the way, I am in no way arguing that Anderson is darker than Dahl. Instead, I think he honors Dahl’s darkness and resists generalizing it or making it into camp humor.

  4. Millicent says:

    Okay, this is fascinating. I love your take on the big cake of self-narratives. Will wait impatiently for Part 2: dark grocery stores.

  5. Carla Fran says:

    The darkness:
    Have been thinking about what is so specifically dark about it after the juxtaposition itself, of animals celebrating a forever-feed of manufactured food…this made me think of parents, and how they were all wild once, but then became Republicans (my own father very much believed that everybody over 30 was the enemy).
    Have you seen The Hurt Locker? There is a trope in it of the survivor of bleak life (often a refugee or former soviet) agog in an American grocery store, staggered by the amount of choice. There seems to be something so broken in the luxury or branding and 18 kinds of toothpaste, and while it might be an easy target, for Anderson to have the animals dancing and glowing while eating faux goose snacks…it seems as if Mr. Fox has successfully sacrificed any trace left of his entire community’s wildness, while trying to prove that he is, indeed, authentically wild.
    White man’s burden? The surrender to security over chance? There is still a complete shrug of responsibility on Mr. Fox’s part, and the portrait at the end seems to be Cheeveresque–Don Draper has similar endings like this…

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