Fantastic Mr. Fox, Revisited

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I have a blind spot in the Wes Anderson filmography, and it’s a deliberate one. It’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, though I’d have a hard time telling you why.

I saw it upon release, in theaters, and it left me cold. That’s a perfectly fair reason, I think, but the fact is that all of Anderson’s films left me at least relatively cold the first time through. The first time I saw Bottle Rocket I was bored out of my mind. While I still don’t like it very much today, subsequent viewings have revealed an awful lot of gorgeous moments and a subtle thematic resonance that I overlooked completely the first time.

The first time I saw Rushmore I slept through almost the whole thing, but when I revisited it several years later, I was in genuine awe of the sheer mastery that went into composing the film. I also slept through part of The Royal Tenenbaums the first time…but I must have been genuinely exhausted then because I went out and bought the film the next day so that I could experience it properly.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is my favorite film of all time…but I remember leaving the theater after the first time thinking it felt a little light. Now I’m writing essays about every scene for Steve Zissou Saturdays, so you can probably see clearly enough that my stance on that has changed as well.

Then there was The Darjeeling Limited, which similarly felt light to me the first time I saw it, and while it’s no Life Aquatic it sure as heck grew in my estimation. The second time I watched it I cried like baby through the entire thing.

Then there’s Moonrise Kingdom, which I admittedly liked quite a lot when I first saw it, and yet it only gets better with each new viewing, and every time it surfaces in my memory I find myself responding to and being moved by more and different things.

But then there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. While I’ve revisted Anderson’s other films multiple times, and have felt every one of them grow on me to at least some extent, I’ve more or less written off Fantastic Mr. Fox as a failure. I didn’t buy the DVD. I never really thought about it again. In fact, when I analyzed the trailer for the upcoming Grand Budapest Hotel, I suggested that that might be Anderson’s first out-and-out comedy.

…but it’s won’t be. That’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Why I’ve never revisted it, I don’t know. I think I was just afraid that I’d sit down to watch it, and find it to be even worse than I remembered. Maybe I thought it reflected poorly on Anderson as an artist, whereas my previous disappointments reflected more on me as a viewer. I really can’t say.

But I watched it again recently. I watched it again because of how much so many other people seemed to like it. Because of the great defense of the film that my friend David Black wrote for this very site. Because of the conversations in The Wes Anderson Collection* that made me wonder if I’d overlooked what this film really had to offer.

And you know what? It takes a lot for a big bully like me to say this, but…I did.

I did overlook what this film had to offer.

And I’m the one who was poorer for it. Because while this might never stand up to Anderson’s best works in my estimation, it absolutely does belong in their company. It’s a good movie.

One thing reading The Wes Anderson Collection made clear to me was just how much of Anderson himself was in the film. For whatever reason, I had overlooked that completely. I couldn’t tell you why…maybe I was caught up on the fact that, as Royal Tenenbaum himself might have said, it was just a bunch of animals. I doubt it, considering there are at least two childrens’ films that I would put on my list of all-time favorites, but who knows?

The fact is that what I saw in the theater wasn’t what I saw at home a few nights ago. Or, rather, it is, but I saw it in a very different way.

I appreciated the little artistic flourishes that have characterized Anderson’s films…the whip-arounds, the long horizontal pans, the distant action that utilizes dialogue to guide our eyes rather than the motion of the camera. And thanks to reading Anderson’s interview in the book, I realized how much harder it was to do that with entirely artificial sets than it would have been in live action.

I don’t know why, but Fantastic Mr. Fox seemed careless to me when I first saw it. And now I see that it’s not. It’s a bit more upbeat than most of Anderson’s films, but that’s just due to its silliness. When you look at it, Mr. Fox follows the same trajectory of Anderson’s best characters. He has something, isn’t satisfied with it, believes he’s capable of more, and ends up losing nearly everything he had to begin with. Then he gets something back, learns a little more about who he is, and ends the film in a state of relative triumph that is still beneath where he started.

Don’t ask me how I missed all that, but I did. I remembered the dancing. The snarling. The silly music that played while they tunneled around like cartoon characters. I think I wanted Anderson to do for stop-motion what he did for live action, which is filter it through his incredible, inimitable artistic voice. Instead, he made a stop-motion film that just happened to have been composed by Wes Anderson.

That’s not a bad thing. And because I was seeing it as a bad thing, I missed out.

I missed out on the small moments. I missed out on that scene between Mr. and Mrs. Fox in front of the underground waterfall. I missed out on the melancholy personal journey of poor Ash. I missed out on the glorious scene with the distant wolf.

And I missed out on the humanity. These are still characters. There a moments when tears well up, but then don’t fall. There are sounds of life and a larger universe in the background of almost every scene. There’s a strange, warped camaraderie that grows between Mr. Fox and Kylie.

This time, watching it again, I was open to that. I went into it knowing more of what to expect. And because I knew what to expect, I was primed to look for things around the margins. To not get hung up on the fact that I was watching a fox in corduroy dancing around a hen house. I was prepared, instead, to engage the film for what it was, and not for what I wanted it to be.

I was wrong. It is a good movie. It’s not the movie I would have made, but that doesn’t matter, because I didn’t make it. And the fact that I didn’t frees me to appreciate what it actually is.

There’s no better feeling in the world than realizing that as wrong as you were, that particular work of art won’t hold it against you. It’s yours to have, and to appreciate, and to let yourself understand.

* By the way, if you do have a Wes Anderson fan on your Christmas list, this is a brilliant, wonderful, fantastic book. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I’ll be reviewing it at some point…but in the meantime, I’ll just say right now that there’s no Wes Anderson fan in the world that could possibly be disappointed by this. It’s a thing of beauty in itself.