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Arts and Culture

'Fantastic Mr. Fox' Is, Well, Fantastic

A brilliant, beautiful film about marriage, cages and one's own inescapable nature.

By Dorothy Woodend 11 Dec 2009 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Clooney plays high-flying sly guy.

Men and women. I don't know why this is the one thing that I took away from watching Fantastic Mr. Fox. But as a portrait of a marriage, it rivals something Ingmar Bergman might have thought up, except that there are foxes, badgers, nasty farmers, explosions, motorcycles, and more art direction than you can proverbially shake a stick at.

First and foremost, it must be stated that Fantastic Mr. Fox is an exceptionally beautiful film. The attention to detail: right down to piano keys that actually play, real clothes, tailored by director Wes Anderson's own tailor, to dress the puppet characters; and a script that neither panders to children nor adults, is never less than exquisite. The fact that the story takes place in an imagined world in the most genuinely real of ways is the film's most refreshing and deeply charming quality.

Here is where the men and women thing comes in. As much as it is an epic adventure, a familial drama, and an action-packed animated maelstrom, it is also an intelligent investigation of the demands of marriage. We are all wild animals, some of us just can't or won't be tamed, even if we really want to be.

The story begins with Mr. Fox and his wife Felicity (voiced respectively by George Clooney and Meryl Streep) in conversation about the direction of their future life together. The fact that this happens while they're trapped in a cage, and about to be disemboweled by an irate chicken farmer is perhaps the least of their concerns. Fox, who has devoted his life and career to being a preeminent catcher and killer of fowl, has had his plans disrupted by the news that his wife is pregnant. Mrs. Fox would like her husband to choose a safer and more secure means of making a living. Naturally he chooses journalism. In Wes Anderson's world, this is still a job with some degree of security.

Meet the neighbours

Twelve years later, Fox and family are living in a hole in the ground, but dreaming of bigger and better things. Fox's son Ash, far from being a chip off the old block, is a small, awkward kid who wears a cape tucked into his pants and has a habit of spitting. He is deeply weird. Naturally enough, he is voiced by Jason Schwartzman, whose first outing with Wes Anderson was Rushmore. It doesn't help that Ash's cousin Kristofferson, who has come to stay for an indefinite period of time, while his father recuperates from double pneumonia, is superbly capable at almost everything (karate, diving and most importantly the obscure game of flaming pine cone ball).

Things are complicated in the fox den, but this is only the beginning. Mr. Fox's decision to buy real estate next to the three most dangerous farmers in the country, a choice that is vociferously argued against by Fox's lawyer Badger, sets off a chain of events that move with their own momentum.

Before you can say Ocean's Eleven, Mrs. Fox's larder is boasting more hens, cider and smokehouse meat than is right or proper. Being a sly fox, Mrs. Fox is wise to the actions of her husband. "I love you, but I should never have married you," she says. Truer words have rarely been spoken, in the context of what is a kids movie.

The moral of the story, aside from the fact that wild animals cannot change their skins, may be don't piss off English farmers. Boggis, Bunce and Bean, are a cast of grotesques that could only come from the pen of Roald Dahl (upon whose story the film lightly rests). Of this trio, Bean, given voice by Michael Gambon (who madness and menace easily recall the character he played in director Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) is the most terrifying. Fox, for all his cultivated airs, cannot give up the one thing that best defines him, his essential foxiness.

Bring the kids

This is so much a Wes Anderson film that you almost forget it's puppets, or maybe it makes you wish that all of his films had been thusly executed. Bill Murray in Badger form is more himself than in human flesh. Just as George Clooney, freed from the bondage of his own handsome features, can be as much more deeply expressive and adventurous. You gotta love puppets, they're so much more interesting than real people sometimes. Additionally, the density of detail lavished on the set design is such that you may wish to see the film a few times, in order to appreciate the many loving and meticulous touches throughout.

Much has been made of the fact that Anderson's films often seem as if they were devised by an exceptionally clever twelve-year old. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is actually pretty mature stuff. The bonds and betrayals that take place between children and parents, husbands and wives, have long been the meat for some of the greatest stories. Just ask Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and the gang. And, really, what else is there, so simultaneously complex, torturous and wonderful? However terrifically these characters (meaning Mr. Fox et al.) wound each other, family may bend wildly but it does not break. And even if it does break, it can be glued, pasted, and hammered back together into some jerry-rigged contraption, that speaks of goodwill and ingenuity. For this reason precisely, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fine film for both parents and children.

Even as the love-hate relationship between Ash and the obscenely capable Kristofferson is hewn by hard experience into mutual respect, the pair-bond between Mr. Fox and his wife is tested by a Fox's need to be foxy, to trick, to steal, to prove himself so utterly fantastic that everyone will be blown away. Which is literally what happens in the film, simply not quite in the way Fox intended. This exceptionalist streak does not fit well within the confines of a marriage, especially as it threatens to get everyone killed. The necessary and delicate art of compromise is the only thing that may offer a solution. Humility is not an easy lesson to learn, you must choke it down.  Nor is it easy to escape the siren's call of the insatiable ego -- that twitching slippery fantasy-driven voice inside your head, perpetually on the prowl for praise, succor, or whatever else it can get its hands on.

But even as Fox admits to his own hubris, his wife must let him be himself, a wild animal, possessed of the need for freedom and risk. A cage, whether it's one you choose or one that falls down around your ears, is exactly that.

Nature's growl

There is one scene in the film in which the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Having committed feats of derring-do, and bested the stupid humans, Fox runs into his own fear and fantasy, projected onto the figure of a lone wolf. Literally that. It is this stunning creature, dark and lonely, who offers a fist raised in solidarity, that recalls the true call of the wild. The spirit of freedom doesn't wear bespoke suits, or putter about on motorcycles. It lives in harsher, more demanding climes and slips into the forest, like a shadow.

Ultimately, Fox and family settle for more domestic arrangements, making do with life in the sewers, grape drink, and processed food. The ambivalence of this scenario is in keeping with the nature, and I use that term advisedly, of the film. But is survival always a type of compromise? Or can you live free within the confines of the cage you make?

All answers are welcome.  [Tyee]

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