I long for the day when I’ll be able to finish a Wes Anderson film and feel anything more than “that was okay”. I fell hard for GRAND BUDAPEST in my early “teenager trying to become a cinephile by watching movie lists made by people on Tumblr” days — the pink skies and quirky lines, the famous actors I didn’t know were famous yet, the symmetry of the frame and the continuous optimism all worked together in a unique way I had never even dreamed of before.
The years passed and I grew older, and although “wiser” probably isn’t the right way to describe the way I changed over the years, I did end up watching a whole lot of other movies. Anderson still occasionally worked for me — I loved LIFE AQUATIC even more than GRAND BUDAPEST, and I never came out of any of his films feeling like I had a really bad time. But the more time went on and the less I felt connected to what he had to say — and that was if I could even identify what that was at all. It felt sad, like being the only one not in on a joke that everyone else seemed to find hilarious. I was waiting for the day when things would finally click again, when one of his stories would resonate in just the right way and I would finally be enchanted again.
I’m sad to say that yesterday, the first time I watched FANTASTIC MR FOX, was simply not that day.
I’m very much against the notion that not liking a movie means that you don’t understand it. I feel like I understand at least most of what Anderson is trying to convey here. I understand the nature versus nurture debate, and the unfair nature of the class system that the film highlights again and again. After watching so much of his filmography, I can easily spot Anderson’s favourite quirks — the dysfunctional family, the stop motion animation that will come back in his later projects, the uplifting yet not perfect conclusion, and of course Murray and Wilson and everything unapologetically SYMMETRIC and YELLOW.
Even putting all of these subtextual ideas aside, I can admit that it is a cute story full of cute, if underwritten characters. But just like every other Anderson film I struggle to find interest in, it’s truly nothing I haven’t seen before, and I would assume that to be true for most people with even a slight interest in storytelling. I wouldn’t mind the characters being completely assumed archetypes if it weren’t the same archetypes I have been watching for so many of his films without ever being able to establish a real connection to them. The film is very pretty to look at in its own fall-coloured way, the dialogue occasionally made me smile — but, unlike what my attempts at Being A Woman On Social Media have attempted to teach me, sometimes pretty simply isn’t enough.
The one aspect of the film that bumps this up slightly above the complete indifference I felt for a MOONRISE KINGDOM or ISLE OF DOGS for me is its ending. I don’t know how necessary it is to mark this as a spoiler since it’s a scene shown in the trailer (something I actually didn’t know until I read the movie’s TV tropes page as I actively avoid trailers like the pest, for reasons exactly like this one), but feel free to skip the next few lines if needed.
Seeing this family of foxes in the harsh lights of the supermarket is the first and last truly jarring element of the film to me. Rather than highlighting a contrast with the supposedly wild nature of the foxes, it just shows their artificiality: little puppets moving about in a script not any more organic that they are. No wonder that the star-studded apples and synthetic juices don’t seem to bother them: they were never pretending to be real anyways. Clooney and Streep’s voices add an extra layer of cynicism to the whole thing once the main couple starts quite literally glowing to show their love for one another; a love that exists because it has to, if only for the sake of this narrative existing at all. We saw for the past eighty minutes all the reasons Felicity had to feel dissatisfied with her marriage to Fox; but a happy end is still needed, and so all these feelings must vanish to let the credits roll and everyone dance in peace.
Am I giving too much importance to a movie about talking foxes ? Probably. But is there really nothing to say about how eager we are to accept clichés in some movies and detest them in others? FANTASTIC MR FOX only has elements we’ve seen before: the kid only acting mean because of his search for approval, the truly mean guy with no real redemption arc, the flawed hero and his fun little companions. Roald Dahl’s name is little more than a funky little gimmick here; maybe this used to be his story, but through and through, what we are left with is just Anderson being Anderson. It might work for some (or, considering the overall reception of this film, many), but for me it unsurprisingly just falls flat.
This is far from dreadful, but even some nice animation and Willem Dafoe as a gigantic finger-clicking, crime-loving rat (the highlight of the film for me, although also one of its most terrifying unadressed aspects; imagine seeing a RAT bigger than a DAMN FOX! I would simply, excuse my language, shit my damn pants) can’t save this from being the most average kind of cute. The slightest bit of hope that the film will attempt to address its own artificiality is quickly squashed for the profit of unearned happy conclusions. Not a bad ride, but a feel good movie so enamored with its own conventions it forgot to take a good look at itself — and God knows it should have.