Fantastic Mr. Fox is Wes Anderson’s first animated film, and it still feels like an Anderson film. So many of the characters he writes hide under something, whether it’s heavy eyeliner, sunglasses and a headband or something more sophisticated but ultimately just as ineffective, like a carefully curated public image (Max Fischer).
Mr. Fox is no different, and it’s a little more obvious on the surface. He’s a fox dressed for a 9 to 5 job. Right off the bat we know that’s a bit amusing, but it’s an animated family film, and that’s how these stories work, particularly when an animal is the protagonist. But Mr. Fox is aware that he’s hiding under this new uniform. He’s a columnist at the local paper, but he’s a fox, and his animal instincts tell him to hunt. He promised Mrs. Fox that he would give up that criminal lifestyle due to its danger, but after one son and a couple years, he relapses.
Mr. Fox makes a detailed plan to rob three larger than life titans of the food industry (at least in that community). Their names are Bean, Boggis and Bunce. They produce chickens, cider and something else. I forget what the third thing is, but the chickens and cider are the most important.
When Mr. Fox proves to be a problem for the farmers, they team up to get revenge. From the fox’s perspective (and the whole film’s perspective), these farmers are monstrous. Instead of fortifying their compounds (which are already incredibly well-defended), they viciously attack Mr. Fox’s home. Mr. Fox and his family dig deeper into the ground, and they tunnel their way into the farmer’s compounds, raiding their storage.
Mr. Fox learns that other nearby animals have lost their homes due to the vengeance Mr. Fox has provoked. Things get worse when the farmers use the cider to drown them out, and Mr. Fox’s nephew, Kristofferson, gets kidnapped by the farmers.
In the end the animals all join forces, celebrating their individual strengths and differences (and latin names) to defeat the farmers. The movie ends with them dancing in the supermarket owned by the three farmers, with easy access to a new food source.
This story felt natural both as an animated film and as a Wes Anderson film. Mr. Fox gets himself into trouble because he has an impulse to act a certain way, similar to the behavior of Steve Zissou, Max Fischer, etc. They’re fighting this thing inside them that’s more and more undeniable. They have to do something or they have to feel a certain way, but at the beginning of the movie they’re actively suppressing it. The way Mr. Fox sheds his 9 to 5 lifestyle is like Richie Tenenbaum shaving his beard and cutting his hair or The Darjeeling Limited brothers tossing aside their luggage as they jump aboard the train.
It’s about breaking free of restrictions, whether they’re self-assigned or societal. There’s a subplot about Mr. and Mrs. Fox’s son, Ash, coming to accept himself. He’s intimidated and jealous of Kristofferson, but in the end they point out that his differences should be celebrated. He also proves himself in his father’s eyes, so that doesn’t hurt either.
The dysfunction of animated characters is natural for movies like this, because the characters have to be a little quirky for the comedy. They’re heightened, more exaggerated, but again, this is something Anderson has been doing with his characters, at least from what I have observed.
Fantastic Mr. Fox could be a sort of thesis statement for his past films, about heightened realities and eccentric characters who feel like they have no control in their life, so they control the little things they believe are under their power, such as clothing. It also establishes a small world within the film that, like his other works, might as well be the entire world. In this movie, the three farmers are the biggest problems imaginable in that world.
The other thing, of course, is the cinematography, with expected camera movements and symmetrical shots. These shots help to tie each character and location together, so that you can see clearly where they are in relation to each other. Such spatial recognition can also be implied through more conventional editing, but the camera movements do a much better job of tying them together. Those techniques often mean the camera is a little wider, showing most of a character as opposed to just their head, and this helps you feel the world they’re in, with each character just a small part of it. So Anderson has this effect of suggesting this world that’s not all that big, yet these characters are still small within it. The feeling I’m left with is that there are these people (or foxes) who feel like they have no control (small within the frame), yet they do have plenty of control as the story progresses since it’s driven by their own actions (big within the context of the depicted world).
At the end of Fantastic Mr. Fox, we see most clearly just how small these foxes are. Throughout the film, the shot is big enough to see most of the fox, and the same goes for when we see the humans. It makes the foxes appear to be just as big as the humans, but it’s only when they’re together that we realize how small the foxes are. It’s another empowering visual message to show that the little guy is capable of more than he or she imagines.
Yet there we are at the end, with these tiny foxes dancing in the aisle of a grocery store. Maybe it shows how little and seemingly powerless they and we are, but it follows this crazy story in which they succeeded against great odds (David and Goliath), so we know they’re powerful. I don’t know exactly what I’m getting at other than this film, like every Anderson film, ends on a positive note. We’re supposed to feel good about ourselves, because his characters always start in a place of misery and end in a place of celebration.
But rather than starting in hell and ending in heaven, his character usually seem to start in purgatory or some kind of stasis. We meet these people in devastating silence and stillness, and when we leave them they’re always in motion:
- Bottle Rocket: start with Anthony in the hospital, end with Dignan walking triumphantly away from the camera, waving to Anthony.
- Rushmore: start with Max asleep in a pew, end with Max dancing with Rosemary.
- The Royal Tenenbaums: start with the children (as adults) isolated (city street, bathtub, boat), end with the entire family walking towards the camera after Royal’s funeral.
- The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: start with Steve unceremoniously seated at a tepid response to his film’s premiere, end with him striding towards the camera, leading an impromptu parade and with a child on his shoulders.
- The Darjeeling Limited: start with Peter lugging his bags to catch the train, end with the brothers all running to catch the train but tossing aside their luggage.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox: start with Mr. and Mrs. Fox in a cage, end with the foxes dancing in the grocery store aisle.
So there are people stuck in boxes who don’t know if they’ll ever get out, and they do.