Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) December 19, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Animé, Hollywood, Literature.
Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Directed by Wes Anderson
Cast: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray
After all is said and done, more is said than done. (I’m sure Aesop was laughing when he was writing this.)
I haven’t seen the popular film version but I am acquainted with the French fable called Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox in English). It is a famous story in European medieval literature about the fox named Renard who tricks the animals in the kingdom habitually. Receiving numerous complaints, the Lion as the king summons the fox to appear before him. Renard, after many attempts, is arrested. The king and the other animals have decided: Renard should die on the gallows. When the rope is about to leave him hanging, Renard tells the king that he needs to share with him a secret. He confides that some of the animals are planning to dethrone him; and a treasure is hidden somewhere that only he knows where. Deceived, the Lion gives him parole and allows him to escape. Renard promises to give him his share of the treasure. Hearing the verdict, the other animals protest. The Lion finds out later that no such treasure exists. The end.
That’s the story I’m familiar with—a childhood wasted in anthropomorphic friends—but I’m sure the other variations of the fable either continue the story after Renard’s escape or expand the second act to make room for suspense and humor. The story, however, had left me wondering as a kid why I kept rooting for the “bad” character instead of wanting him to be punished. Unknown to me then, it may be my first encounter with the adult territory, grâce aux livres.
No, I will not make a connection between Le Roman de Renard and Fantastic Mr. Fox—not because it’s too obvious, but also because I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book. What I’m interested in sharing is what I found out just a couple of days ago, which is rather stupid of me to discover this late—since I work at a French library—but then upon seeing the big book that spells the title as LE ROMAN DE RENART, I think I may have something to say about Wes Anderson’s fantastic film as well.
Renart is the name of the fox—the protagonist—derived from the name Reynard (or Reinhard). One of the first thorough versions of the story was written by Pierre Saint Cloud in 1175 called Le Roman de Renart, the t and not the d was used. In French, the original word for fox is goupil, but since saying the word goupil among farmers is known to cause bad luck—probably their crops will not see the light of harvest or some bad omen will await their families—they opted to use renart instead, after the famous character. Through constant use, renart became renard, which up to now, is commonly used to denote the animal. Goupil, the Old French word, became obsolete; and renard, formerly the proper name, lives on.
The replacement reveals the nature of language to change through time. It is not only dictated by the need to create, but also by the necessity bound by a set of beliefs observed by its people. The case of the French farmers shows how superstition can override normalcy, how connotations are often more powerful than the plain and simple meanings of words themselves. Thus, if I should now relate this long interpolation to the film that I should be talking about, I must say that popularization of previous works must be careful. Texts are very brittle and malleable; they can easily infiltrate the culture and become actively used for a long time. Popularity is always definitive of the status quo; and once these texts are no longer popular, one way or another, they have already reserved their space in our memory. After a period of time, we use them at ease; we use them as considerable references. In Anderson’s case, nonetheless, I see no reason to doubt it and be cynic on the thought—there is no way I’d damn it with faint praise.
It is a common reaction to observe how terribly painstaking the job is after seeing an animation film. One can imagine how many years it took the animators to perfect the details, to apply the colors, to smooth the transitions, to look for appropriate voices for the characters, to find the most effective music, and a lot of other things. When I see a Pixar or a Studio Ghibli film, for example, and especially when I stay to read the credits, the craft woos me. The drawing trick touches childhood memories. Fantastic Mr. Fox does that to me—and how awful!—I imagine, one by one, how the crew stops to shoot an angle, then another angle, then a closeup, then another closeup, then fix Mrs. Fox’s hair, then put some color on Mr. Fox’s tail, then where’s the next set? et cetera, et cetera. It overwhelms me. And this is not to say that I like it just because I see how difficult to have it made; but otherwise—the delivery amid the difficulty.
There is that leap of imagination that escapes the pages of the book—the creativity not fettered by Dahl’s words—that Anderson is able to translate. The fox figures of Mr. Fox’s family, not to mention the other animals, are charming, not even scary. It is minimal in visual depth; there are no outlandish embellishments or efforts to see what’s beyond the screen. What gives the film a specific character is the storytelling—the way Anderson inserts the subtitles here and there, the way he jumps into a beautiful closeup of one of the characters, the way he writes the dialogue and we hear them spoken impeccably, the way Desplat’s music and The Beach Boys’ songs (oh, that Brian Wilson voice and harmonies!) shoot the moon, and the way the humor keeps them all together, without being too preachy on their moral overtones.
Fables endure because more than anything else, they tell a good story. Saying that these animals are (like) us—I think using metaphor rather than simile fits better—is too elementary an argument to say, but that’s really it. These stories are meant to be simple and easy to undertand; and they are narrated with the intention to entertain and to impart a lesson. Anderson does that, in an an hour and thirty minutes; and greatly so. When I see the animals interact with the humans, I thought I’d find it weird—especially in the end when the animals win over them—but it’s surprisingly delightful. The young mind is enthralled; the adult mind is captivated; and it’s not on account of different things. When it comes to great stories, after all, there is no age to consider. We are all young at heart.