Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #6: Fantastic Mr. Fox


Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

Loren Greenblatt: At the time, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited left some people feeling that Wes Anderson was getting too caught up in his style.  He did little to assuage those anxieties with his follow up:  a stop-motion film, a form that, quite literally, gives him control over every hair of his mise-en sene.

Max O’Connell: Some already thought his films were cartoons – A.O. Scott seemed to dance around that idea in his The Royal Tenenbaums review, whereas those arguments become more common around The Darjeeling Limited. So, he did what anyone might do to counteract those arguments: he made a literal cartoon! And yet it’s become one of his most embraced films, well reviewed even if it didn’t do well at the box office, and a lot of people saw it as a return to form after Darjeeling and Life Aquatic split a lot of people.

LG: What else is interesting about the film is that Anderson doubles down on the storybook aspect. Like many Anderson films, it starts out with a book (the original Roald Dahl book), with an illustration of Mr. Fox, or “Foxy,” (Clooney) only to cut into a glorious sunset as Foxy listens to “Davey Crockett,” a spectacular myth-making song. Yeah, we’re in a fable all right!

MO: And part of what makes it such a wonderful fable is that it’s dealing with an antiquated style. 2D animation is becoming less popular as 3D animation boomed, and stop-motion has been almost completely phased out. Not too many people other than Laika and Tim Burton still do it. Which is a shame because it fits people like Wes perfectly, because while it’s not as fluid as, say, Up, that’s kind of the point. It has this wonderful warmth, this handmade quality. It looks like something out of a storybook.

LG: They animated the frames a little slower than they normally would have so we see the seams, too. There’s a sense of the thingness of things: you can clearly see that all of the smoke, for example, is made of little cotton balls and it’s adorable! And he’s adapting his overtly whimsical style that he used for adult stories to carry over to children’s films, which he’ll do again in Moonrise Kingdom.

LG: I think while there’s still some darkness and edge to both films, but it’s no secret that he’s let up on tone a lot here, this is by far his lightest film.

MO: Part of why it’s so wonderful is that it does maintain a bit of an edge, which is important. It’s something both Anderson and Dahl understood: children’s movies without any real conflict or sense of danger are really dull. Here, we get some of the Dahl macabre jokes. Fox gets his tail shot off, and it’s worn as a necktie by the main villain, Bean (Michael Gambon).

LG: And the hero actually kills someone, a rat played by Willem Dafoe. There’s not a lot of modern kids movies that have a death scene at this point, the kind of old-fashioned fairytale thing that a lot of recent kids movies have moved away from.

Anderson also lifts from film history. One of the big influences that struck me on this viewing is Raising Arizona. H.I. McDonagh and Foxy are both characters who give up a life of crime so they can raise a family, only to regress for their own reasons. Their animal instincts or criminal natures are still there, and both films are about putting those impulses behind you for the sake of growing up.

MO: I can see it. I’d also connect the film to traditions by Dahl, though, where family life is never ideal. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they’re all good people, but they struggle in poverty. In Matilda, it’s an unloving home. In Fox, the father’s kind of a cad (as George Clooney characters tend to be), and he’s a classic Wes Anderson bad dad. He’s not Royal Tenenbaum, but he’s not always the best father to Ash (Jason Schwartzman).

LG: He likes to give people false options to validate himself. From the first scene, he’s constantly intimidating people into going his way as a way to make them like him. It doesn’t always work.

MO: In Wes Anderson’s films, characters try to have an impossible level of control over their lives. Fox does that in an interesting way by trying to inject more spontaneity in his life rather than letting himself be controlled. He’s a wild animal, and he doesn’t want to give up that. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the doldrums, he wants to “steal squabs on the side.”

LG: He positions himself in ways where he’s almost trying to get into trouble, trying to inject spontaneity into his life where it might mess him up, and that kind of fits with what Wes is trying to do with animation and with his own style. There’s a sense of spontaneity here that’s rare in animation and I think it has a lot to do with the way the dialogue was recorded. In most animated films, actors record their dialogue separately in closed off sound booths, which is no way to act. Anderson was novel, recording his actors together, in physical locations mirroring those in the film. There’s a trade off sometimes in the technical quality of the recordings, but at the same time the technique adds life to the performances that might not be there otherwise.

MO: Yeah, the cast is wonderful. I’ve been on the record as being a semi-contrarian on Streep, in the sense that I think she’s frequently praised for performances that are well below par for her (*cough*Doubt*cough cough*The Iron Lady). Here’s a performance that’s actually underrated: she’s as warm and empathetic here in a way that she doesn’t always get to be, a companion character to Anjelica Huston’s mother figure in The Royal Tenenbaums.

LG: It helps that she’s picking better material and working with a great director for a change, instead of the auteur of Mamma Mia!


MO: But while we’re talking about that new spontaneity, we shouldn’t undervalue how his films always the offbeat little character bits that stand out amidst the tight control over everything. What’s one of your favorite bits of side-whimsy here? Mine’s “Petey’s Song,” that wonderful Jarvis Cocker, playing the villain’s assistant, Petey, makes up a song that brings us up to speed but uses made-up words that displease the villain.

LG: “You can’t just make up words! That’s bad songwriting! Bad job, Petey!” The look on Petey’s face makes me feel that that this putdown is almost as big an act of villainy as Bean shooting off Foxy’s tail.

MO: Him making up a song on the fly infuriates a villain who’s one of Wes’s classic control freaks. Or maybe I’d go with the choice to have the characters say “cuss” instead of cursing, which hits its peak in that great little scene where Foxy and Badger (Bill Murray), his accountant, getting into a loud, wild animal argument.

LG: Yeah, there’s an interesting tension there, where they’re both anthropomorphized and animalistic at the same time. For me, I love Whack-Bat, with the ridiculously complex rules that remind me of Fizzbin from Star Trek. There’s this whole thing where Ash really wants to be the best Whack-Bat player like his dad, but he’s not an athlete. He’s trying to be his dad in a lot of ways, the mischief side especially, but he can’t really live up to it, so he’s inevitably going to go through sulky teenager phases. That’s only made worse by the arrival by his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, Wes’s brother), who’s very athletic and gains Foxy’s approval over his own son.

MO: This movie, like no Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore recognizes that kids can be cruel, too. It’s telling that Ash is played by Max Fischer himself. He doesn’t treat his cousin very well. Kristofferson is almost impossibly unassuming, even with all of his talent. He’s just a nice, calm kid trying to make the best of a situation where his father is deathly ill and he has to live with a bunch of relatives that he’s never met. Foxy takes to him right away, but Ash is needlessly cruel to him.

LG: We understand where that frustration comes: he’s jealous because of how his father takes to Kristofferson. But he can be cruel, yes. There’s a nice moment where Kristofferson wants to sleep in a less cramped position than under Ash’s bed, and Ash refuses. Kristofferson starts to cry, and Ash reluctantly realizes he’s being a dick and turns on his train set. There’s a moment of brief connection before more rivalry.


MO: “More rivalry” emphasized. He’s still awful to Kristofferson, even after he stands up for Ash when he’s being bullied.

LG: Every kid goes through a period where they’re dicks. It doesn’t help that he’s seen as “different.” It’s never mentioned that he’s dressed as a superhero with a little white cape and bandit hat. He’s that kid who’s a super-nerd and doesn’t understand why people don’t like him.

MO: He’s a strange little guy who’s trying to blend in and be something he’s not, much like Max Fischer. He wants to be an athlete and push down everything that’s unique about him, just like Max wanted to hide his working class roots.

LG: Though I’d stress that the pain isn’t as deeply felt here as it is in Anderson’s previous films, or even in another great children’s film from that year, Where the Wild Things Are, which has a similar theme running through it (and which we both love far more than the rest of the world).

MO: It makes sense that it is lighter, because he is making a children’s film. My minor complaints on this front is less that he’s treading lightly and more that there are times where I feel he spells something out a bit too much for kids or parents, as if he’s trusting them less. There’s a moment where Foxy says aloud to Felicity, “I need everyone to feel I’m the greatest.” We know his problems. We don’t need it restated. More notably is right after the rat, in his dying breath, gives them some information to help find Kristofferson, they say aloud something to the effect of, “He redeemed himself.” It’s already demonstrated beautifully in the scene before, so we don’t really need to be told, and I don’t think the kids need to be told either. Kids are smart. They’ll get it.

LG: Yeah, though I do love the line about him being “just another rat found in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.” It was a problem in The Darjeeling Limited too, what with the “you’ve still got some healing left” moment.

MO: Yeah, clonk. These aren’t as bad as that, they’re minor things.

LG: I can see Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach feeling out to what degree they can be themselves in this film in certain scenes, but at its best it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic in the best Wes Anderson-y way. In the opening scene, Felicity and Foxy break the chicken roost in a large simulated tracking shot set to “Heroes and Villains.” That’s just such a joyful moment.

MO: It is. We talk about Anderson’s great use of music in all of his films, and this is no exception. You mentioned “Heroes and Villains,” I’ll mention the other Beach Boys song used, their version of “Old Man River,” which is so gentle compared to the more raucous song they use earlier.

LG: The only bit of music that doesn’t quite work for me is the use of “Street Fighting Man.” It’s in a great sequence, but I don’t think the song quite fits.

MO: I’m on the edge for that one as well, maybe just because I want him to use another left-of-center choice like “I Am Waiting” or “She Smiled Sweetly” or “Play With Fire” instead of a big hit. But I agree, thematically it doesn’t fit.

LG: Then again, I don’t know how “Heroes and Villains” fits thematically, but it’s perfect for the feeling. It’s his first film with Alexandre Desplat doing the score, as well, which gives it a wonderful rustic feel that separates it from his Mark Mothersbaugh collaborations.

MO: Desplat does his best work with Anderson. It’s not just a wonderful, whimsical nursery rhyme thing to it, but it also reminds me of the kind of stuff that Georges Delarue would have done for Truffaut in the 60s and 70s (Wes does use a Delarue song at a key point in the film), a bit like the jaunty score for “A Gorgeous Kid Like Me,” which Baumbach later used himself in Frances Ha.

LG: They both have this warm, loving, inviting style, which is something I love about what Anderson takes from Truffaut. They both love playing with film history in a warm, affectionate way, rather than the playful but cold way Godard does.

MO: Some of the references are a real delight. There’s a scene where Boggis, Bunch and Bean meet up and Bean is framed in the dark almost like Vito Corleone, plotting the death of another man (er, animal). And Bean’s freak out tearing apart a room is a nice, funny reference to Citizen Kane, where he’s reimaging a life-crushing moment from that film as a petty moment in Bean’s life.

LG: That scene in the dark reminded me of Once Upon a Time in the West where Harmonica’s waiting out in the dark, being shot at.

MO: That’s an interesting comparison, too, because there are more overt Leone throwbacks, as in some of the eye-framing standoff moments. It’s a much smaller scaled film, but he’s trying to give it that same kind of epic conflict. There’s also the bit of the score where Foxy confronts a wolf and the score plays like Ennio Morricone. Though, honestly, I never really got why that scene was there.

LG: Well, it’s his pure animal nature physically embodied. It’s completely without borders. It’s dangerous. It goes back to the Raising Arizona comparison I made, with the wolf in the place of the biker. It’s also a bit of a Jeremiah Johnson reference, where Redford sees his opposite in the distance and they acknowledge the power they have over each other before passing.

MO: That makes a bit more sense, though I still wish they played with it a bit more. Then again, I complained about him being too on-the-nose earlier, so maybe I just don’t know what the hell I’m looking for.

LG: I really love the ending of the film. You complained that the action sequences in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were clumsy, but he does a pretty wonderful job here. It helps that he can control everything in the frame. The go-for-broke rescue scene is wonderful. They have to race through town, hiding behind crates as they’re being shot at, and Anderson really uses the stillness of stop-motion to his advantage to emphasize motion. The ending, though, after they’ve lost everything, they find a way to live outside of their nature and find a way to survive by taking from this supermarket. They’ve found a civilized world to be a part of, even if the lighting is fluorescent and awful and the linoleum floor doesn’t feel great on their feet, but they have each other to get through it. Of all the Wes Anderson films, this film more than any other stresses community.

MO: I wouldn’t say more than any other, since Moonrise Kingdom expands upon that, but it does more than any other Anderson film before it. We have all of these wonderful side characters (Murray’s Badger, Wally Wolodarsky’s spiral-eyed opossum Kylie) that Fox constantly talks over. There are two important toasts in the film: in the first, Fox interrupts Badger’s toast and makes it about himself. In the second, it’s more about everyone. It’s about sticking together and surviving, about creating a giant family and being about more than just yourself. It’s another cautiously optimistic ending, as it was in Rushmore, because it’s not going to be easy for them, but they can get through it together.

LG: Everything that happens is Fox’s fault, and it’s about him learning to get over his own selfishness. We love Clooney, as he’s a wonderful rascal, but watching him grow is all the more satisfying. And then we get that last song, Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance.” It’s a song about infidelity and breakup, but it’s such an upbeat song. It’s like “Ooh La La” in Rushmore. There’s a sly attention to a mix between happiness and sadness that makes the ending work.

Loren’s Grade: B+

Max’s Grade: A-

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

No comments:

Post a Comment