I WANT TO TREAT this scene as a first stepping stone in a series of reflections. I have an uphill battle to fight: I want to make case that Fantastic Mr. Fox—often overlooked or dismissed as a kid’s movie—is actually Wes Anderson’s best film, and is one of the most important films of the last ten years. I figure my favorite scene was as good a place as any to start.
The scene is both a literal and structural a detour: Mr. Fox, his son Ash, and Kylie the possum have saved cousin Kristofferson from farmer Bean. They are riding a motorcycle on their way back to their hideout to hatch a plan with the rest of the animals to get back at the farmers who have forced them underground. On the road Kylie spots a wolf. He says to the group, “Don’t turn around,” and comically all three heads turn (because, of course, in life, we do the very thing we’re told not to.) Mr. Fox stops the motorcycle to look at the wolf. “Where’d he come from?” Mr. Fox says. And soft choir music plays as Mr. Fox awkwardly comes to terms with his ‘phobia of wolves.’
THIS IS FUNNY—I smile every time I watch this scene—but it’s also emotional. Mr. Fox too is on the brink of tears at one point but fights them back. Wes Anderson has a unique skillset as a director, one that enables him to hit beats of humor and melodrama at the same time, by complicating what would otherwise be a visually striking but superficial story with genuine discord between the appearance and what’s underneath.
Take for instance Mr. Fox’s attempt to communicate with the wolf. He states their Latin names, tells the wolf he has a phobia of wolves, speaks in different languages, but the wolf is silent. Wes Anderson’s obsession with the surface level composition does well to freight this interaction with meaning. Mr. Fox and the wolf are literally both animals but the wolf is not anthropomorphic, which brings tension to the attempts to communicate. We, as the viewers, are not sure whether or not the wolf will respond. And Mr. Fox, even set against his greatest fear, is ever a bullshit artist. He says all throughout the movie that he is a wild animal. That is taken to be the main subtext of the movie, the reason for the materialization of the main plotline: Mr. Fox cannot help but steal chickens and squabs: as he says to Kylie “And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” He thinks he wants to be a wild animal but isn’t prepared to deal with the negative consequences that go along with that. The wolf is a physical manifestation of the disparity between what Mr. Fox thinks he is and what he actually is.
The raised fist is meant to be ambiguous and funny; a symbol normally associated with political movements, it somehow fits. I don’t know why but this is the perfect way for the wolf to reciprocate—probably because it subverts Mr. Fox’s expectation that the wolf will know Latin or French, and instead, without words, this scene engenders the ironic feeling that although they are trying to express solidarity with one another, the two couldn’t be more different.
WES ANDERSON IS THE PERFECT auteur to give expression to Mr. Fox because he too is something like a bullshit artist—but we are all bullshit artists in this sense. Mr. Fox wants both sides of the coin. He wants to live with the benefits of society and the benefits of a wild life with none of the downside, and without considering the effect that effort has on others. If this is not the underlying moral calculus for just about every modern day problem we face, I don’t know what would be.
I APPRECIATE THE MORAL subtleties of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is at least partially a movie made for kids. Disney & Pixar movies can be morally heavy handed, with overt messages and morals built in so obviously that it feels rigged from the beginning. Few ‘kid’s movies’ respect the intelligence of children and their ability to grasp complexity. The tested formula for conventional features seems to be: market to the parents instead of the kids, with messages the parents will want their kids to learn. This is fine. But my favorite movies and books of this genre (Willy Wonka, Star Wars, A Wrinkle in Time, & Fantastic Mr. Fox etc.) don’t necessarily pander directly to kids or to parents. Instead they become kid friendly by inviting kids to eat at the adult’s table and helping them come face-to-face with big ideas without spoon-feeding: they are accessible to kids and adults both by opening up the experiences of the characters and the general plotline in a way that is relevant to everyone.
This is no small task for the story teller. To be relevant to the widest number of people is to in some sense be universal, and a universal kids movie has fewer options at its disposal to reach such a level—being limited to what only is considered appropriate—so there is no choice other than to go deep, to delve into meaningful symbols, while eschewing the more gratuitous aspects of death or sex.
Rather than preach a specific message, this scene, and Fantastic Mr. Fox as a whole, lays out a way of thinking about the morality we all face. Even the surface is a symbol, the animals, which lends strength to Wes Anderson’s particularly stylized compositions as he plays with those metaphors.
THE QUESTION, to my mind, is: how will we face those sides of ourselves that are driven by instinct? Avoid them? Explain them away? Run right for them, consequences be damned?
However we come to terms with this, we all have a little bit of fox in us.
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