Ten Years of Fantastic Mr. Fox
Though ranking lists tend to be pretty inconsistent for the ever-popular Wes Anderson - a testament to the quality and consistency of his films -Fantastic Mr. Fox has always been one of my favourites. His famous warm yet stilted visual style perfectly fits with the jerky, surreal movements of stop motion animation, and as his first foray into making a film specifically for children, he excels in talking to them as discerning viewers, not down at them. But within this inviting exterior and quick-witted script sits a beautiful analysis of maturity, responsibility, and expectation, one that elevates the film from just good entertainment, to an affecting and memorable one even a full decade later.
Pretty As a Picture
Of course, as is the case with every one of Wes Anderson's movies, you could take any still from Fantastic Mr. Fox and gladly hang it on your wall. In his other films, this tendency towards constant quirky perfection has left me a little cold - in the case of this movie, however, I think it works beautifully to enhance the vintage children's aesthetic. The textures of the models used for each character lend an authentic, handmade feel far more charming than a similar style would in CGI, while the autumnal palette of oranges and yellows visually invite you to engage with this strange yet familiar world. All in all, an impressive feat when adapting a book with illustrations by national treasure Quentin Blake, images that are hard to trump in the minds of most.
Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't the first Anderson film to resemble a storybook, but it's arguably the one where the aesthetic adds the most to the thematics and narrative. Bright yellow titles in classroom style fonts introduce some of the key moments in the plot, helping the little ones understand what's happening onscreen, but also contextualising some of the most important moments in the life of Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his family, lending significance to seemingly simple moments that ultimately reflect the ending ethos of the film. The close central framing of our titular character at almost every moment also certainly helps in making him seem truly fantastic, even before we truly know the personality behind the image.
Changes in Adaptation
I sometimes wonder what the late Roald Dahl would have thought about this film had he been able to watch it, given the many liberties it clearly takes in the process of adaptation. Notoriously, he wasn't a fan of many adaptations of his work, even referring to the much-beloved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) as 'too saccharine'. In this respect, I think that Dahl would have appreciated the blunt, surprisingly dark tone of the script and visuals in Anderson's reimagining (though perhaps would have resented how only the villains are allowed to retain an English accent). However, it's obviously impossible to tell, particularly when you consider how many new plot elements were added to both pad out the runtime and flesh out the themes.
One such addition that expands on a minor aspect of the book and adds a uniquely Anderson tone is Willem Dafoe's Rat, a French villain who works for Bean (Michael Gambon) but who ultimately sides with his own kind when the time comes. As well as bringing some fantastic comic relief and entertaining fight scenes, Rat adds another layer to the theme of individualism vs community, his role as the secondary antagonist stemming from his selfishness in choosing to side with the enemy for the sake of hedonistic personal gain. Similarly, the rivalry between Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) is rooted in themes of masculinity and the need to be the best that is semi-present in the novel but given fuller attention in the adaptation, suggesting that Mr. Fox's flaws may lead his son to make the same arrogant missteps.
'Quote Unquote 'Fantastic Mr. Fox''
For me, the smartest move Anderson made in making this adaptation was to elevate the source material by questioning the very title of the book - Fantastic Mr. Fox. Ultimately, Dahl allows the fox to live up to this name, and doesn't fixate too much on the fleeting self-doubt he experiences upon losing his tail, or how his relationship with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) is plagued by an image he desperately strives to maintain, at the cost of his family's safety and security. This is the direction that Anderson took in his crafting his version of the story, changing the name of the work from a title that may as well be the protagonist's birthright, to a childish, near-impossible dream. His relationship with the alliterative antagonists Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Gambon) remains that of a hero and his villains, but also takes on the feel of (pardon the term) a d*ck measuring contest, in which their egocentric masculine bravado begins to destroy the stunning pastoral landscape that surrounds them.
So in this sense, the three farmers actually win the battle partway through the film - Fox's home is destroyed and his tail is shot off, a visible defeat he can't hide from his wife, his kids, or the numerous other animals who've suffered the consequences. What can he do to get back on top now? Anderson answers this by asking in return whether there's any value in actually trying to be on top, culminating with Fox's toast in the supermarket to 'survival' - if they have what they need, and they have each other, they don't need to ask for anything more. He even wins back the title of 'fantastic' in this final scene courtesy of his wife, his greatness stemming from his care for others rather than for any kind of material success or accolade.
Revisiting As An Adult
A lot has changed in my life since I first watched Fantastic Mr. Fox at age 10. I've finished school, moved out, started university, moved in with my partner, gotten a dog, and most significantly for this article, had my outlook on adults drastically altered. I think most people with a stable-ish upbringing assume that the grown-ups surrounding them know what they're doing, in an eternal, prescriptive sort of way. For as long as you've known them, they have had a spouse, children, and a job that may never have changed, and you struggle to see them without these associations attached. The process of how they reached these milestones is almost entirely alien to you for the longest time; surely they were just inevitably going to happen at some unspecified point in your twenties or so. Then you get to age 18, and realize that they were winging it all along, and have somehow managed to make things work - now it's your turn.
Let's be honest with ourselves here: Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox is primarily a character study of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis dressed up to look like a film for a younger audience. The line of McDonald's toys can't fool me - I know that if it were live-action and every instance of 'cuss' in the script was replaced with actual cussing, it would more closely resemble The Life Aquatic... than James and the Giant Peach. But in providing this film for younger viewers, Anderson gave me and many others a glimpse into adult anxieties that seem implausible to us at the time - how could dad ever be unsure of himself? Watching Mr. Fox's many mistakes helps the humanity and flaws of the grown-ups seem far more clear and relatable, especially with the conduit of Ash to help you.
Conclusion: A Children's Film to Be Taken Seriously
As well as being an absolute delight to watch regardless of your age, Fantastic Mr. Fox remains a thoughtful and layered meditation on maturity and responsibility, as well as a joyous and visually striking animation. This movie is a perfect example of the depth and poignancy that family films can possess, in a world where movies like The Queen's Corgi are fobbed off onto children on a regular basis, as well as a rare popular example of stop-motion animation that didn't come out of Laika or Aardman (as much as I love these studios). Accessible without being patronising and pensive while avoiding pretention, even those averse to Anderson's filmic style would find it hard to pass over arguably his greatest film.
I hear the Foxes and their friends are still living under that supermarket even now, eating star marked apples, playing whack-bat, and having a fantastic time surviving together.