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A little cheese and a little whine

Film log: Fantastic Mr Fox

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Wouldn’t it be funny to make The Royal Tenenbaums as a stop-motion animation involving animals? If you think the answer to this is something along the lines of “Dude, that would be hilarious” then you’ll love Fantastic Mr Fox. If, on the other hand, like me, you would answer something more like “no, that would just be faintly irritating,” then you’re unlikely to make it past the first thirty minutes without wondering why someone has tied Kevin Smith to a chair, made him watch Trumpton for forty-eight hours, and then had him explain his ideas to someone who saw a film once and thinks they’ve got the hang of it.

The central conceit of this film can be demonstrated in the fact that it uses the word “cuss” where it should use “fuck”. This is not a thoroughgoing shift in the script’s argot; it’s a direct replacement which gives us lines like “are you cussing with me?” “you scared the cuss out of us” “cuss yeah you are” and “this is turning into a clustercuss”. These point up the tension between the expectations of the genre and the requirements of the themes, and that could be hilarious, or faintly irritating, depending on your point of view.

Anderson’s material makes the best of the highly nuanced acting he is able to get from his cast. Tenenbaums is a beautiful film because it is so gently acted; the characters pull us in with material which looks thin on paper but when put together with a gesture here and a pause there becomes painfully human and utterly engaging. In the animated format, though, much of that is stripped away, and the lack of punch in the underlying material becomes evident (and for me, too evident).

The secondary conceit seems to be something like: if you had to make a film about whiny middle class white Americans talking about finding their inner “wild animal”, wouldn’t it be cool if they were portrayed as animals? Again, IMHO, no, it’s just faintly irritating. The effect for me was as if someone had made a rather weak drama about someone having a mid-life crisis and then made an all-star cast act it out wearing animal masks.

I only watched this film past the first thirty minutes because it would be unfair to write something like this without seeing the whole thing, and I have to admit that my perseverance did give me the opportunity to see what I’m taking as a redeeming feature: a moment when Fox exchanges salutes with a distant wolf. The wolf is mentioned earlier in the film, to no consequence, but the salute scene still has a certain gravitas. There is a way of reading it as an acknowledgement that, for all their whining about their animal nature, white middle class Americans having mid-life crises remain essentially tame, limited and conventional (the ultimate solution to Fox’s problems lies in finding a supermarket): it is the Wolf, and not the Fox, who truly captures the essence of wilderness. I like to think that the salute is also a salute to the eponymous Jack Nicholson film, which does a much better job of exploring the same issues.

In its defence, the film is faultlessly executed and faithful to its conceits, playing the tension between genre and theme consistently well, and the script is as good as Tenenbaums or Life Aquatic. So I think for anyone who finds the basic idea funny, this is a great film.

I’m just not one of them.

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Filed under: Film + TV,

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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