If you have been following along with these reviews of Wes Anderson films, you will note a few repeated themes. For this Catholic, the most troubling of these is when there are brief shots of sexual acts. He creates these beautiful scenes with pleasing color palettes, innovative camera placements and movements, and the positioning of characters in such a way as to make a perfect interplay between actor and background or vice versa. In short, it works. And yet every once in a while, you will have the insertion of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) getting pleased orally by an octogenarian, such as in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Usually, these last for barely longer than it takes for you to blink. Yet, this voyeuristic take on sexuality is taken to its apotheosis in The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Star (2021) with the long scenes of the fully nude Simone (Léa Seydoux) being painted by the murdering artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Given Anderson’s artistry with everything else, it is akin to placing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. It also makes me not want to watch his movies, yet they are so rich that I tend to grit my teeth and look away through the parts I wish not to see. What redeems them often is a feature you see in many of his films, and that is the animation. Today’s offering, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is his first fully animated movie, this time using stop-motion.
As the title suggests, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about a fox (voiced by George Clooney), going by the unoriginal sobriquet Foxy Fox. Before going any further, I should explain that the animal world in the film exists side-by-side with the human one, and that the characters we focus on are all anthropomorphic. Despite wearing human clothes and having human jobs, Mr. Fox (as he is commonly known) still does what you expect of a member of his species: sneak into chicken coops and take chickens. This is how we are introduced to Mr. Fox and his wife, Felicity Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep). Yet, when their escape from the farm is seemingly thwarted when a cage unexpectedly drops on them, Felicity makes her husband vow to give up his wild ways. The reason for this ultimatum is because she is pregnant. Two years later, which is twelve in fox years (a running joke in the movie), Mr. Fox is a struggling writer for their local newspaper. They do not have much, but Felicity reminds them of their happiness, even if they are having trouble understanding their cub, Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman). Mr. Fox, on the other hand, is not content. While reading the paper one morning, he notices an advertisement for a house in a tree, and decides he wants to buy it. Against Felicity and his lawyer’s, Clive Badger (voiced by Bill Murray), advice, Mr. Fox buys the home. On the surface, this is to provide a better dwelling for his family. In reality, the home comes with a view of three large, successful farms that he hopes to raid. Because his wife is against it, Mr. Fox recruits the help of his opossum friend, Kylie (voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky), to help. Meanwhile at home, tensions with Ash increase when Mr. Fox’s nephew, Kristofferson Silverfox (voiced by Eric Anderson) comes to stay while his father is in the hospital. Mr. Fox takes an immediate liking to Kristofferson, which makes Ash jealous. Ash pines to impress his father, and is not satisfied when Felicity tells him that he is simply different. Mr. Fox remains mostly oblivious to these emerging problems due to the success he and Kylie are enjoying taking items from the neighboring farms. Unfortunately, during their mission to Franklin “Frank” Bean’s (voiced by Michael Gambon) apple orchard and cider distillery, Mr. Fox and Kylie are confronted by Mr. Fox’s longtime nemesis, Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Their resulting confrontation provides enough of a delay for Mr. Fox and Kylie to be discovered by Bean. Gathering his two neighbors, Bean camps out in front of Mr. Fox’s tree home, intent on shooting Mr. Fox when he emerges. They manage to separate his tale from his body, but he escapes back inside. What follows is a veritable siege, with every successive elaborate scheme by Bean forcing the Fox family to burrow deeper into the ground. Eventually, these actions begin to affect the other animals, and they come to Mr. Fox looking for solutions. The obvious one is to accede into Bean’s demands and turn himself over to them. This is given an added boost when Kristofferson is captured by Bean, the result of Ash’s desire to take back his father’s tail, which Bean is wearing as a necktie. Before Mr. Fox makes his sacrifice, though, Rat makes a dying confession as to Mr. Fox’s nephew’s location. This bit of information allows Mr. Fox to concoct an alternate plan, which frees Kristofferson, allows everyone to have a prominent role to play, and utterly humiliates Bean. Though they are now forced to live in the sewers beneath the nearby town, the film concludes with them finding a convenient entrance into the local supermarket.
As with all Wes Anderson films, Fantastic Mr. Fox is able to transport you into a world of his own design. I have to admit that, before last night, my quest to see all his movies was beginning to feel stale. Yes, he does well with world building, but it was all beginning to blend together. Yet, after seeing this one, my first thought was, “That was great.” You could tell, though, that Anderson was trying hard not to revert to many of his old habits. I will commend him for his restraint, and I think that it was, by and large, self-imposed. For starters, he chose to adapt a Roald Dahl children’s novel. If that name seems familiar, it is because he also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among many other recognizable titles. I have no idea how closely Fantastic Mr. Fox follows the source material, nor do I care enough to do the research. Regardless, I have a hunch that the children’s book did not contain so much cussing. To be clear, I do not mean actual curse words. Instead, where in the English language we use the “f word” or the naughty alternative for poop, Anderson inserted the word “cuss” or “cussing.” Since the movie is rated PG, I assume that this would go over the heads of most kids, while adults would probably be filling in the linguistic blanks. It is little touches like this, and various other things done with the stop-motion animation, that make the film a rich viewing experience.
One of the running themes in Fantastic Mr. Fox is the question: who am I? One can make the argument that Mr. Fox getting back into raiding farms is the equivalent of a mid-life crisis. This, too, pertains to identity. Mr. Fox loves his family, but he wonders whether or not he is leading the life he is meant to pursue. When he is confronted by Felicity when she discovers him sneaking around behind her back and stealing from the farms, he protests that he is just a wild animal at heart. Here we come to that tried-and-true Catholic concept of vocation. God has in mind for all of us a specific function. No, this does not go against free will. We can choose to ignore these callings, but in my experience that leads to discontent. Clearly, this is what Mr. Fox is experiencing. Still, his actions go beyond his family. He wants people to like him, and when he finds that the other animals are not that keen on his newspaper articles, he decides to please them with his pilfered goods. While this does come with a great deal of upheaval for all the animals, in the end one gets the sense that Mr. Fox being who he is leads them into the utopia that is the supermarket. That is how God’s will for our lives is supposed to function. If everyone followed the path God lays out before us, think of how better would be this world.
Of all the Wes Anderson films I have seen, Fantastic Mr. Fox is now in the top three. In fact, I daresay it might be my favorite. It does not have the elements I discussed in the introduction, and I love the way he uses the stop-motion animation. I will always love Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but at least with Fantastic Mr. Fox I do not have to squirm in my seat with scenes of suggested pre-teen sex as with Moonrise Kingdom. In summation, Fantastic Mr. Fox gets my full recommendation.