Charlie Brown is arguably one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time—he and the rest of the Peanuts gang are larger than life.
But you may be surprised to learn that in the first Peanuts strips, published in 1950, Charlie Brown was little more than a prototype of his future self. He was more like a stock character than the unmistakable loser we all know and love. And beyond Charlie Brown almost every other piece of Peanuts was missing in these first strips. There was no Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, or Pig-Pen. The other starting main characters from the early 1950s strips–Shermy and Patty–would eventually be scrapped to make room for the future stars.
Above is the very first strip of Peanuts ever published, October 2, 1950.
Although most of what we’ve come to know as Peanuts doesn’t appear in Schulz’s work until the 1960s, the original germ of what the character of Charlie Brown would become is present in this very first panel. Of all that’s absent, it’s what’s present that is most striking. There is Charlie Brown the likable loser:
Good ol’ Charlie Brown.
How I hate him!
I like this first strip and the beginning era of Peanuts–the early 1950s–because, all throughout this period, you can see that Schulz is still working. I think that’s why the first panel is two other characters looking at and commenting on Charlie Brown. It’s a way of acting out Schulz’s own task, which was to see and define a character people would be interested in. He was still trying to see Charlie Brown. He didn’t have a fully formed character to begin with. He just began and worked it out as he went along. It took him some time but he eventually got it. Below is a much more recognizable strip which was published January 1957.
That’s more like it.
What a great reminder for the creative person. You don’t need to have everything all worked out. What you need is one good idea to build on.
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IF THE SIGNIFICANCE OF Mr. Fox’s journey is exhumed during his confrontation with the wolf, everything leading up to it takes on a relatable form. The opening scene particularly becomes more than just a piece of information that moves the story along:
This scene is the prototypical nightmare for any modern person fearing the trappings of a traditional family life, so the mythos of hyper-individualism goes: freedom dies the moment you become responsible for someone else’s wellbeing, and thus happiness dies along with it. Mr. Fox feels this as he insincerely smiles—knowing the outward role he is supposed to be playing while being inwardly conflicted. Felicity Fox, on the other hand, upon asking him to find a ‘new line of work,’ is established as the moral center of the story: the embodiment of the expectations Mr. Fox will try to negotiate his way around.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-animation movie with fox puppets, is one of the most sophisticated critiques of this kind of modern day mythologizing I’ve ever seen; it does this by avoiding easy answers. Like Mr. Fox, we are all caught somewhere between the competing realizations of our obligations to others vs. individual freedom. One story tells us that in order to be happy we need to settle down into a family collective and subjugate our needs and wants to the group. The other says that this traditional model has largely failed and that in order to truly be happy we must follow our internal drives for autonomy and self-sufficiency. Each story, in its critique of the other, throws a little of the baby out with the bathwater, eschewing some element of human complexity.
Mr. Fox therefore has an identity crises which leads him to a path not unfamiliar to many of us. He does what he has to do in secret while playing a different role in public. He thinks this won’t have any effect on those he loves:
But of course it does have an effect.
In fact before Mr. Fox even commits any secret acts of‘pure animal craziness,’ his son Ash is already aware of his father’s resentment towards him:
How many children throughout history have been subject to their parents’ misappropriation of attention and significance? This is the deeply ingrained story of what happens when a culture cannot make up its mind about what it thinks it should be. When we (as well-meaning individuals) cherry pick and otherwise ignore incompatibilities between cultural narratives that are irreconcilable, schisms develop within us overtime which effect how we relate to others and especially those closest to us.
THESE ARE ALL VERY WEIGHTY and significant ideas but the masterstroke of Fantastic Mr. Fox is in how it uniquely handles these. Rather than becoming overly somber at its own realizations, Fantastic Mr. Fox insists on being funny. This, in my opinion, is the best way to explore tough and self-implicating problems. We can’t take ourselves too seriously or we sort of lose the point.
One of the ways Wes Anderson pulls this off is by poking fun at ways in which human civilization deals with its own inconsistencies, reinterpreting them for the animal world. My favorite example of this is the Whack Bat scene:
Why are the rules for Whack Bat so complex?
And why is it funny?
This is an expression of how culturally central sports are, and how at the same time, they are completely arbitrary systems of rules that govern human movement for the sake of entertainment and ritualistic reenactment of earlier more brutal times, when human strength and speed were important for sustenance and not sport. Ash wants to be an athlete because his dad was an athlete. This is illustrative of the very conflict within Mr. Fox: sports are a remnant of how the primal life has be tempered and even made beautiful through civilized cooperation. Imagining the minutia of Whack Back reminds us just how ridiculous our obsessions with sports are. It’s been estimated that the entire sports industry, combining all ticket sales, merchandising revenue, and sponsorships will amount to 73.5 billion dollars by the year 2019. This is hilarious. The agonizing attention which is paid to the smallest details of statistics, analysis, and reportage of games, both professional and collegiate, is a reminder of how conflicted we are about the obsolescence of our own bodies. Ash’s particular desire to be an athlete is also a function of trying to gain his father’s approval.
THIS IS JUST ONE example of the innumerable ways Fantastic Mr. Fox gives space for clever humor.
Without spoiling the ending, it’s safe to say that Mr. Fox does accomplish certain resolutions to his problem of the divided self.
In the Boggis, Bunce, & Bean Supermarket, under fluorescent lights, amidst aisles of groceries, Mr. Fox gives a concluding speech in elegy to our modern day situation; caught between our primal instincts and the world made for us by society:
They say our tree may never grow back, but one day something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose, and these giblets come from artificial squab, and even these apples look fake, but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes to our survival.
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.