Bright Lights Film Journal

Inimitable Charm: Wes Anderson’s <em>Fantastic Mr. Fox</em>

“Anderson, like Dahl, seems to have told a story to appeal to a child’s inner adult.”

Children are smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, especially when it comes to absorbing complex ideas through storytelling. In children’s literature, only the most inventive and nuanced writers are successful, the ones who don’t merely convey a sense of wonder but actually stimulate imaginations and engage children in meaningful stories. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true of children’s cinema, which is flooded with watered down, cookie-cutter narratives with simplistic characters, cheap endings, and unambiguous moral lessons. Rarely does a children’s film come along with depth to rival the misfit anxiety of Tove Jansson’s Moomin series or the sociopolitical tension of Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book. Children experience loneliness and fear, they watch the news and learn about the terrible things in the world, yet many adults seem to think they need to be cloaked with simple, easily digested stories to keep them complacent and content. Hollywood seems to think the same way about the adult population, as well.

Underestimating children’s ability to deal with art and narrative betrays a belief that such mental capacity is an exclusively adult attribute. It would be ridiculous to claim that children are as smart as adults, or that children don’t watch plenty of garbage in the cinema and on television, but the success of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are last year indicates that either adults are beginning to find a deeper appreciation of child-oriented art, or that children are finally being given their due access to artistic films instead of just entertainment. I don’t have numbers on ticket sales demographics, but I’m betting that it’s both, and, in any case, the definition of a “children’s movie” is eroding, along with the vague border between what is “childish” and what is “adult” in the cinema. Perhaps it’s not so strange, then, that Wes Anderson, a director either obsessed with or frozen in precocious adolescence, should find his greatest film in an adaptation of a short Roald Dahl novel. When an otherwise adult director makes a children’s movie, critics often say that he or she seems to have made it for their “inner child,” but with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson, like Dahl, really seems to have told a story to appeal to a child’s inner adult.

Dahl’s books are always suspicious of authority, and they are always careful to give adult protagonists nuances of imperfection. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is, in both book and film, a charmer and an adventurer, a lovable scamp who puts his life on the line for his loved ones, but he’s also a thief, a narcissist, and something of a fool. You never stop rooting for him through all his endeavors, but distance is key — no child could turn “Foxy” into an object of hero worship. Anderson expands on Dahl’s already rich characterization by fitting Foxy into his own tradition of likeable and wily egotists, a continuation of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums), Steve Zissou (Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic), and all his other male protagonists. Like them, Foxy wants one last adventure, one more bit of excitement before he gets over the hill, and he botches his personal life in pursuit of it. Yet, thanks to Clooney’s performance and the sharp script by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, it never seems like a retread, and Foxy manages to redeem himself more satisfactorily than his predecessors.

Fantastic Mr. Fox also continues Anderson’s meticulous artificiality, which he has employed in all but his earliest film, 1997’s Bottle Rocket. His characters live in dioramas, placeless limbos somewhere between a French New Wave film and a Burberry clothing ad, where everything is printed in Futura and Helvetica and geographic regions are defined not by political borders but by color palettes. At its best, this intensely fake aesthetic makes for wonderful ironic farce (The Royal Tenenbaums), both witty and able to poke fun at its own pseudo-philosophical melancholy. At its worst, it’s smug, pretentious, and cloying (The Darjeeling Limited), most often when his sense of white bourgeois self-pity overwhelms his self-deprecating irony. In the stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, Anderson’s dollhouse mise en scène not only meshes perfectly with the animation and Dahl’s story, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing it justice.

An oft-repeated quote of Anderson’s is that he tries to find the flaws in beauty and the beauty in flaws, and the low-tech, jittery animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox is the most beautifully flawed imagery he’s ever produced (though much credit is due to the relatively unknown animators, who also worked on Tim Burton’s otherwise mediocre Corpse Bride). Autumnal colors, vibrant textures, and deceptively simplistic staging purify Anderson’s impressionistic flair, which has increasingly been trying to escape the realistic constraint of the live-action human face. His last few live-action films might very well have benefited from a similar stop-motion treatment. Henry Selick, who animated the pastel sea creatures in The Life Aquatic, was originally set to collaborate, but he opted to direct last year’s Coraline instead, and maybe it was for the best. Even though Selick’s own Dahl adaptation, James and the Giant Peach, was something close to a masterpiece (as was the novel), his darkly comic experimentalism could have easily steered this film in the wrong direction.

Charlie Rose once asked Anderson what kind of people watched his films, and Anderson — probably sincerely — responded “outsiders.” This is true of many of Anderson’s fans, but, like Selick and Tim Burton, Anderson’s style has been commandeered by hipsters as a fashion statement. The entire pseudo-genre now unbearably known as “indie comedy” can be traced back to Anderson’s retro-chic geekiness and precocious quirks: Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, Be Kind Rewind, (500) Days of Summer, and all such films are, in some way, imitations of Rushmore. That Anderson’s films are almost equally derivative of Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, and Tati is more because of eccentric francophilia than plagiarism.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, while also visibly influenced by French cinema, has no clear precedent in the animation world, French or otherwise. Few animators would have the gall to produce a film so stiff and boxy — spatially speaking, it feels more like a traditional production of an Ibsen play than a cartoon. Neither Art Clokey (the recently deceased creator of Gumby) nor Ray Harryhausen (director of Clash of the Titans), both masters of stop-motion animation, would have ever thought to use such seemingly ordinary framing, yet this apparent lackluster defect gives the film a genuine personality. Many animated films, being expensive and time-consuming, suffer from a desire to appeal to as many people as possible, but Fantastic Mr. Fox, with its termite art flaws and the unshakeable feeling that it’s trying to hide something, is a largely feast-or-famine affair, appealing wholeheartedly only to certain personality types.

Children’s movies also usually try to appeal to all ages, which is usually little more than a way to make it so parents could actually tolerate the movie enough to spend money on cinema tickets. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a generally entertaining film, but for certain “outsiders,” people to whom a strange film like this appeals on a gut level, it offers a personal connection that most mainstream children’s films are too generic to provide. This is true of children and adults alike: for the former, it’s mature and enigmatic, something to look forward to growing into; for the latter, it’s a fantastical inner refuge from the anxieties of adult life, like Richie Tenenbaum’s boyhood tent in The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson takes the book’s most important emotional note — the desire to never “come up above ground again,” i.e., to never expose oneself to the anxieties of uninteresting, crude, and malevolent people — and expands it into a cinematic playground that has the potential to actually bring adults and children closer together. It’s Anderson’s most mature film to date, and it’s impressive how deftly he avoids the cliché trap of politically correct multiculturalism that catches much of children’s entertainment while genuinely celebrating diversity — the kind that arises not just from ethnic and social background, but also from personal weakness, failure, and disappointment. There’s a nugget of sincere beauty (and playful irony) when Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) tells her son — who is worried about being “different,” i.e., awkward and insecure — that “there’s something kind of fantastic” about being irreversibly flawed.