Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
My first Wes Anderson movie was The Royal Tenenbaums – and I wasn’t a big fan of it. To some extent that may be because I wasn’t yet used to Anderson’s particular cinematic idiom, but at least as much as that I think it’s that Anderson himself was still looking for that idiom. There’s a lot in the film that looks instantly familiar, but my main problem was the way it tried to blend the arch stylistics and Andersonian characters we’ve become familiar with on the one side and poignant drama on the other. There’s one scene in particular, a suicide attempt late in the film, that felt to me like Anderson was flipping a switch: one moment the film’s characters were cartoons, the next we were supposed to take them seriously as characters with depth and genuine suffering. I sat there seeing what Anderson was aiming at, and the scene is effective in itself – but I wasn’t buying it.
What’s the best thing about an11-hour flight? It can’t be the dodgy movies on the in-flight entertainment system, can it? (I once failed to go to sleep on a flight that showed Marley & Me and Paul Blart: Mall Cop on all the screens. The lambs have barely stopped screaming on that one, Clarice.) Well, yes, it can, on one of those snazzy new planes where even down in Economy Class, with all the third class Oirish having a fun time before the plane hits the iceberg, you have a choice of oodles of films, music and games. And since Who Wants to be a Millionaire? loses its interest after a handful of games, especially when there’s no oily showmaster-wala with an Indian accent to foil your attempts to get the money and the girl, I decided to dedicate at least some of my flying time to watching first The Men Who Stare at Goats and then The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Men, goats, intense stares… George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey – what could go wrong? Well, it’s not so much what went wrong; it’s more that way too little went right. The film is a brilliantly cast neat idea spun out over 1 1/2 hours, which makes for a great trailer (minus Ewan McGregor’s horrid American accent) and a decidedly mediocre film. It isn’t really worth saying all that much more about it, except to bleat mournfully.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though? I’m still surprised to say that I genuinely enjoyed it. I’ve had problems with the two Wes Anderson films I’d seen, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s a great aesthete, but his style got in my way of enjoying both movies to a large extent. The problem is that the films and their characters are so stylised, in their looks, behaviour and neurotic quirks, that they feel wholly static – so when the plot contrives to make them tragic, I don’t buy it. The pathos turns into mawkishness, and when it kind of works in spite of the artifice, it’s largely due to the borrowed emotions of the songs Anderson chooses. To my mind, characters can only become tragic if there’s the illusion that they are free, or at least struggling to free themselves, from the master puppeteer that is Fate, the Script and/or the Director – Anderson’s characters have often struck me as being puppets at the mercy of a master stylist who doesn’t have freedom anywhere on his palette.
I suspect that what makes Mr. Fox work for me is this: animated films are stylised to begin with. They are entirely created. And ironically that makes Mr. Fox feel less constricted by Anderson – whereas real people in a live-action film are made less unreal by the artifice that seems to be his favourite stylistic choice, the animated foxes, moles, possums and badgers, not to forget farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean), are infused with humanity, for want of a better word. The style becomes a part of the whole rather than being the whole and thereby threatening to suffocate both the actors and the characters.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is very clearly a Wes Anderson film – the look, feel, costumes, even the character setup (father-son conflict anyone?) feel familiar… but by sidestepping live-action for once, Anderson’s made the first film that, being entirely artificial due to being animated, feels real to me.
And it’s got this lovely scene with Michael Gambon (as farmer Bean) and Petey, as played by Jarvis Cocker: