Monday, December 21, 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox

There's a new movie out called Fantastic Mr Fox, based on the book by the same name, by Roald Dahl.  Dahl is one of my favorite writers for children:  I love Matilda and James and the Giant Peach especially.  There's also a great book of "fractured fairy tales" in verse, Revolting Rhymes, that I've practically memorized.

So when I heard that somebody had made a stop-motion animated version of Fantastic Mr. Fox, I had to go see it.  In the book, the fox lives under a tree, and he regularly robs three farmers of their chickens, ducks, and cider.  The farmers try to dig him out, and to escape, he and his family tunnel all the way under the farms and into the chicken houses, etc, where they get food for a huge underground feast with the other animals of the wood.  In my book, there are hilarious drawings by Quentin Blake, who has illustrated many of Dahl's books.  And Dahl's somewhat gross sense of humor are evident:  he describes things falling out of Farmer Bean's ears, such as flies and bits of gum.

The original story is in the tradition of so much English children's literature:  talking animals that wear clothes and live bourgeois lives in holes under trees, like in The Wind in the Willows or Winne the Pooh or the Beatrix Potter books; and marginalized "people" like the Borrowers who are invisible to the humans but rob them of small things that the people can easily spare, just to survive.  Why did English writers specialize in these sorts of stories?  Maybe because of the tradition of "fairy" stories:  the fairies, after all, were small, not-quite-human beings that lived on the edges of gardens, invisible to the powerful humans. Some say that the fairy folk were the original inhabitants of England before the Celts arrived.

 Wes Anderson, who made the film, has elaborated greatly on this tradition  and updated it.  All the twee elements of British children's fiction are retained: the precious miniature interiors and clothes, the bucolic countryside, the bourgois comforts of life in a hobbit or badger hole.  Anderson commissioned people to make tiny knitted caps for the puppets to wear, for example, and it's a  great pleasure to look at all these details.  Much work went into this movie, into the making of the sets and into the laborious process of stop-motion animation, where each tiny movement of a character is photographed, then the puppet is moved a little more and another photograph is taken, and so on. It's an old-fashioned way of making an animated movie.

But in addition to all this cuteness, there's a kind of darkness in the movie's set and  plot that's only hinted at in Dahl's book.  Anderson brings this dark element to the fore.  Dahl's farmers are obsessed, Ahab-like, with eliminating the fox; but in the movie they go beyond bulldozers and use explosives to oust the foxes from their hole. I'm sorry to say that it reminded me of our country's behavior at the beginning of the Iraq war, when we bombed civilians in Baghdad during Shock and Awe.  And the animals cowering in the hole are nothing if not  civilians in war time--mothers and children along with the fathers--banding together courageously to survive.

The farms in the movie are factory farms.  They are surrounded by concertina wire and guarded by armed guards. Bean surveys his realm through the use of video cameras, from an underground bunker.  The farms look more like prisons or concentration camps than like bucolic English countryside farms of Beatrix Potter's time.  And indeed, real livestock farms are very much like concentration camps these days.  And when the animals finally find a paradise full of food in the movie, it's the inside of a big box supermarket at night, where they drink juice out of boxes and eat fruit with stickers on them.  Mr Fox points out that the food may not seem like real food, but the animals are surviving, and that's the name of the game:  survival.  A sentiment that many Americans can relate to this winter as they push their buggies through the aisles of Costco or Walmart.

Indeed there's an existential theme that persists throughout the movie:  What is a fox?  Mr Fox asks this question aloud and points out that it is existential.  Can a fox be a fox if he never steals a chicken?  If he no longer acts like a wild animal?  He longs to BE a wild animal, rather than the bourgois, tamed fox journalist he has become in the movie.  All those old children's books implicitly asked the same question:  if animals are like people--wearing clothes and talking--are people like animals?  And often, in those books, the humans were much more cruel and bloodthirsty than the animals.  This is true in the movie as well.  Again, many  humans may have repressed the question that haunts Mr Fox:  is a thoroughly tamed and domesticated human, pushing a cart through Costco, still "wild" and therefore "free"?  What have we lost, in order to survive as modern humans?

Through all this seriousness, though, there's a lot of humor. The animals sometimes lapse into fierce fights, with growling and scratching, but they never say bad words:  whenever they're tempted, they substitute the word "cuss," as in "Are you cussing with me?"  or "That was one giant cluster cuss."  They also eat ferociously, with their hands, like real animals.  These sudden lapses into "animality" are funny, juxtaposed with all the gentility of their rooms and clothing.  Also, there's a very funny scene where a young fox is learning a game called Whack Bat, the rules of which are so arcane and elaborate that the explanation of how it works is a parody of every over-elaborate sport you've ever tried to learn.  (It also reminds you of the invented game quidditch in the Harry Potter stories.)

I also loved the music.  The first song you hear is that great song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."  Mr Fox is playing it on a little tape recorder attached to his belt, it turns out.  How quaint!  (Alongside all the other 19th century"quaintness" of the English children's book, but quaint in its evocation of the fifties, when Davy Crockett was all the rage, and of the seventies, when we listened to music on little tape players.)  Anderson said in an interview that the fox's tail (which he loses near the beginning of the book) reminded him of Davy Crockett's coonskin hat.  Also the soundtrack includes several Burl Ives songs from the fifties, songs I loved as a child, such as "Buckeye Jim," and "The Grey Goose."  The latter is a song about a hunt, so it's appropriate.  The little fox child is listening to the song in his room as he falls asleep.

About the loss of the tail:  in the book the tail gets shot off by the farmers, and Mr Fox retreats to his hole, where Mrs Fox "tenderly" licks its stump to stop the bleeding.  I suppose this was too erotic and animal-like for the movie, so in the movie  she just sews up the stump instead!  So, despite the daringness and contemporaneity of the movie, the book still has an edginess and naughtiness that the movie can only aspire to.  That's the thing about books.