I had started to get the sense, sometime after seeing The Darjeeling Limited, that I was vaguely…worn out by Wes Anderson. The man who had been one of my favorite working filmmakers since I had seen Rushmore on a free HBO preview with my dad in high school was, I felt, maybe stuck in a rut. A quirky, some might say auteurist, rut, but a rut all the same. Now, I’m not suggesting some trite nonsense about artists having to “grow” or “mature”; it is more that the initial emotional highs I felt watching Wes Anderson movies was no longer present. Well, that’s not entirely true; they were present, but they were expected. The experience of watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, while a conflicted and confused one for me, shed some light on what it is that makes Wes Anderson Wes Anderson.
In a way, The Fantastic Mr. Fox (the book) inspires much of Anderson’s protagonists and worldview. Mr. Fox loathes humdrum legal routine; the ordinary day-to-day work makes him restless. His excitement for schemes, plans, and machinations of an extra-legal variety find expression in Bottle Rocket‘s Dignan, in Rushmore‘s Max Fischer, in Royal Tenenbaum, in Steve Zissou. In the sense that Anderson could be said to have an auteur’s consistent worldview, he creates protagonists who use pranks, shenanigans, and plans to seek out the attentions and affections of those around them.
In contrast to his own creations, though, Mr. Fox, a Roald Dahl character, finds inspiration for his schemes from his very genes. He is, as he often reminds his wife, “a wild animal.” To some degree, the heroes in Anderson’s film all share this internal motivation, but Mr. Fox has little regard for the attentions of those around him. He digs merely to survive; Royal Tenenbaum may say that he digs because he has to, but he really wants the attention of his estranged wife and family.
In the film, Anderson also intensifies his primary stylistic impulses. He always has, in concert with his brother Eric and his art directors, reveled in scenic detail used to vivify character. The real world and his budget have, in the past, limited this impulse somewhat; Mr. Fox, though, is an animated film. The entire look of the film comes straight from the source material and Anderson’s head; the animation tempers his flights of cinematic fancy. It is a two-edged sword, however. On some occasions, the animation allows for almost overwhelming activity. Previous Anderson moments of narrative excess, as when Royal Tenenbaum and his grandsons tear up New York City in a montage of tomfoolery, are limited by reality, and gain strength and solidity from that limitation.
Mr. Fox almost always threatens insanity by virtue of its style, and thus moments of narrative excess must take on almost ludicrous proportions to stand out. Scenes of underground digging resemble a Chuck Jones cartoon gone wild. These sequences are not too crazy, but then, consider the scene of animals dancing to Jarvis Cocker (!!!) singing a folky reel. I watched these moments and have to admit that the whimsy had, even for me, gone too far. Similar moments of completely narratively unmotivated goofiness in a film like, say, Night of the Hunter, are at least vaguely, tangentially, motivated by location or mood; the dance scenes in Mr. Fox act almost counter to not only the plot, but the overall stylistic unity of the film. These scenes take on surrealistic aspects, but the surrealism is startling and disorienting, rather than indicative of anything in the film’s overall style. They were, simply, out of place, an exaggeration of Anderson’s technique of random loud British Invasion rock and slow motion or his scenes of characters dancing together at the close of his films.
Other stylistic touches in the film rang similarly hollow for me. Mr. Fox’s “trademark” gesture of clicking his tongue twice, whistling, and saluting felt a little bit forced, as if Anderson couldn’t quite keep himself from giving Mr. Fox a bald trait like that. (Then again, maybe I just didn’t like the way that George Clooney voiced it). The entire character of the rat (Willem Dafoe) was just a little bit too much (if you’re riffing on West Side Story, even ironically at this point, like, knock it off).
It could be that I’ve missed the point of all of this. Mr. Fox is, after all, a children’s book. My own cranky personal feelings about childhood and childhood’s increasing influence on artistic endeavor have, no doubt, some bearing on my reaction to some of these touches in the film. And really, they are minor complaints. I found myself laughing and/or amazed at as many of the moments in Mr. Fox as I did find myself cringing. The voiceover work is for the most part top-notch, although Clooney’s delivery often comes across as a little flat. Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman do fine. Eric Anderson, normally Wes’ illustrat-y brother, does excellent work as the voice of Kristofferson. Bill Murray (who I thought said he would never work with Anderson again) was predictably great. Owen Wilson was fine. The animation was top-notch in execution; the soundtrack (Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, loud) managed to enhance the action rather than step on it.
All of this stylistic examination notwithstanding, though, there is something about the film that bothers me, something I can’t quite put my finger on. I think it has something to do with the rhythms, the pacing, the scene construction. The way Anderson moves immediately into a shot of digging with almost no setup and the way the camera moves suddenly after his customary long-take medium-long shots. The way the realistic look of the animation gives way immediately to cartoony motion. The way moments of crisis fade immediately into prosaic conversation almost without transition. It is the lack of transition between mood, I think, that is the hardest thing to work through watching this film. (It probably also helps to exlplain the relatively short run time of 87 minutes). Of course, Anderson is no stranger to sudden mood change (e.g. The Darjeeling Limited, perhaps the most crazy tone shift in the past decade of cinema), and it’s not too glaring here, although it is perhaps vaguely dis…concerting, almost unconciously, after a bit.
I think that Anderson has perhaps honed his formula a little too finely at this point. He has managed to pare down his love of whimsy and goofy plot to the point that there is almost no space wherein the little ambiguities and unanswered questions once lived in his films. (Again, though, Mr. Fox is based on a children’s book). The family relations in his other films, strained, stressed, and non-verbal, here find clear resolution. Without the vagueness of his previous characters, (think of how Owen and Luke Wilson’s, or Bill Murray’s, expressions seem to mask true emotion or intent), the whimsy hits a little directly, a little hard. Mr. Fox is a good film, and entertaining film, and inventive film, and I would see it again, but I wonder if it isn’t time for Anderson to work through some of his other personal interests on screen. He’s a personal filmmaker at the very least, and I wonder what else he has to talk about. Rushmore, I think, hinted at other things in his world, and perhaps someday we’ll all find out what those are.