Monday, October 11, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox -- identity and responsibility

Director: Wes Anderson, 2009. (PG)

Fantastic Mr. Fox is, well, pretty fantastic. It may not be the best animated movie of 2009 (that honor goes to Up), but it is certainly one of the best. And it is Wes Anderson's (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) first foray into animation with this adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's classic. Here he uses a stop-motion approach, with real-life models painstakingly photographed frame by frame. What helps the beauty of this film is that he kits these models out with real fur, which gives them a sense of reality as this fur is moved between frames.

As an Anderson film, it carries with it many of this auteur's trademarks: wry humor; rock and roll songs as the back-beat to many of the key scenes, including the eponymous Rolling Stones; montage scenes; and common themes of identity crisis and family dysfunction. And he uses several of his "regulars": Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, etc.

As the film opens Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) is talking to his wife Mrs. Fox (voice of Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia). He persuades her to take the "scenic walk" home which brings them by a farm, where he proceeds to do what comes naturally: steal chickens. When the trap is sprung and they are caught inside, she reveals a secret: they are expecting a cub! His excitement is curbed. Potential family responsibility dampens his enthusiasm.

We cut ahead a couple of years. The Foxes have a cub, Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) and are living underground . . . in a fox-hole. The wild Mr. Fox has settled down to his fatherly responsibilities, having giving up chicken-stealing for newspaper-writing.Yet he pines for two things: danger, and an above-ground tree home. Like many humans, he wants to improve himself and his family. But when he gets his new home, he still wants his old hobby. He wants to fall off the wagon with just one more raid. Like the alcoholic craving another drink, Mr.Fox feels the itch of an obsession he cannot scratch.

When he persuades his friend Kylie the possum (voice of Wallace Wolodarsky) to go on this last raid. But they choose to raid the farms of the three meanest farmers in the neighborhood, Bean (voice of Michael Gambon), Boggis and Bounce. On successive nights these two animals sneak out, knowing Mrs. Fox will not like it if she finds out ("If what I think is happening is happening -- it better not be.") But when their raids are over they have more than they realize or planned for. The chickens and apple cider are in their store-rooms, but they have the ire of the three farmers. And the farmers declare war. They want to kill Mr. Fox and will stop at nothing to make this happen. This war escalates to a siege situation that not only drives the Fox family underground but threatens the lives of all the animals in the locale.

Added to this plot is the presence of Kristofferson (voice of Eric Anderson), the Fox's nephew who arrives to stay with them while his father is ill. Kristofferson is a tall and naturally gifted athlete, something that Ash is not. Given that Mr. Fox was a champion athlete, Ash wants to walk in his father's footsteps, but everyone, including his parents, recognize and verbalize that he is different: smaller and uncoordinated.

Anderson  makes it clear visually that Kristofferson is an outsider. Whereas the color scheme of the movie is mostly autumnal, with oranges, yellows and browns dominant throughout, Kristofferson has a blue wardrobe. He stands out as different.

One of the main themes, then, is the identity crisis of Ash and Mr. Fox. Ash wants to be an athlete, but he will never be one. Mr. Fox wants to be wild and dangerous. He was once but has had to put this aside. Isn't this so anthropomorphic? We often want to be what we are not, or what we once were. We have trouble accepting who we are. Yet God has made us unique, different from others. We are what he wants us to be. We simply need to accept this and then pursue realizing our fullest potential in him.

Mr. Fox struggles with existentialism. At the start he says to Mrs. Fox, "Honey, I am seven fox years old. My father died at seven and a half. I don't want to live in a hole any more, and I'm going to do something about it." Later, in an interchange with Kylie, he says: "Who am I, Kylie? Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I'm saying this more as, like existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?" These might be questions we raise with our friends if we dip into philosophy, if we substitute professions for the animals.

Anderson adds some interesting visual and auditory concepts to the film. Visually, he gives the possum (and some others) literal cross-eyed zone-outs that occur randomly and briefly. Auditorally, he brings cursing into the film without actually cursing: he uses the word "cuss" throughout. For example, when arguing with Badger (voice of Bill Murray), his lawyer, Badger says, "If you're gonna cuss with somebody, you're not gonna cuss with me, you little cuss!" The concept of profanity has replaced the profanity itself, although most will recognize the substitution.

Mr. Fox also struggles with his family responsibilities. He loves his family but wants what he was before fatherhood changed him. We sometimes feel this way, too. When we are single or married without children there are freedoms we enjoy that are removed when children come along. The blessing of babies brings with it the burden of providing and protecting. We simply cannot return to the days when we could do anything we wanted. There are others depending on us.

The final themes deal with leadership and differences. Mr.Fox is a charismatic fox and a leader in his family and among the animals. At first he uses his leadership for his own personal goals, to return to his former ways. When he does this he hurts his family and friends, bringing on conflict. But when he decides, at the end, to use it unite the animals around their common need for survival against the farmers, he brings success and empowerment.

Leadership carries great responsibilty. How we use it is critical. If we focus on selfish desires, we will misuse it and lead others' astray. That is wrong. We must look beyond ourselves to others. It is what Jesus did., especially in the garden when facing the cup of suffering (Matt. 26:39). It is what he wants us to do. That is our responsibility.

Differences form a sub-theme through the whole film. All the animals are different. Even the foxes are different from one another. When the climax comes it is the use of the different animals with the strengths and skills that each has been given that effectively wins the day.

We often want to be like someone else. But God has made us different, gifting us in unique ways. Our responsibility is to find our differences and utilize them for the good of our community. This is pictured in Scripture with the community of the local church (1 Cor. 12:12. The apostle Paul describes it metaphorically as a body, comprised of eyes, ears, arms, legs, feet and a head (1 Cor. 12:14-20). We all form a part, albeit a different one. If one part is missing the whole suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). We should not want to be someone else. If we are an arm, let us be one and use the arm wisely. Let us not seek to be a leg or an eye. And we need to realize there is only one head, and that is Christ (Col. 1:18).

The next time we look back on what we were with nostalgia and a desire to return, or we think about using our leadership responsibility for selfish ends, let's remember Mr. Fox. When he accepted who he was and took on the mantle of responsibility that the other animals demanded of him, he truly rose above ground and became "Fantastic Mr. Fox"!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. I like to think one of the film's major themes is satisfaction. Mr. Fox is unsatisfied with where his life went, Ash is trying to satisfy his father's expectations, the three farmers won't be satisfied until the Fox family is dead, etc.