The Rear-View Mirror: Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

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.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Continue reading

We need to talk about Tracy

I was very much looking forward to Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. It took me a while to warm to Anderson’s films, but I fell hard for his stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, even though I first saw it on a tiny screen in a cramped airplane, so the thought of another animated Wes Anderson joint featuring talking animals definitely appealed to me. I was lucky to finally see Isle of Dogs in a magnificent cinema in Florence, Italy – and much of it I enjoyed a lot. The craftsmanship is exquisite, the cinematography inventive and much of the canine characters’ writing and acting funny and endearing.

Isle of Dogs

However, a Fantastic Mr. Fox this ain’t. While the film’s premise is fine, the overall plotting feels like a draft in need of rewrites. The animal characters are quirky and neurotic but they rarely coalesce into something more genuine than the assembly of quirks that Anderson’s characters tend towards at his worst. More than that, though, there is a Tracy-shaped problem that makes you wonder: what was Anderson thinking? Continue reading

Earthdown, Moonrise

From an atypical variety pack to a covert one – the Variety Pack that dares not speak its name. I recently celebrated my birthday, which I usually follow with some hedonistic binge buying of DVDs and Blu-rays. We’ve since watched two of the films I’ve bought, namely the indie sci-fi-tinged drama Another Earth and Wes Anderson’s latest Andersoniad, Moonrise Kingdom.

Let’s start with the one I’ve seen more recently, Moonrise Kingdom. I have an ambivalent relationship with Anderson’s films; I find his striking, hyper-arch style fascinating and irritating in equal measures. Having said that, I loved The Fantastic Mr Fox, and I have a lingering suspicion that I’ll come to feel similarly about Moonrise Kingdom. On the surface it very much does what all his films do: tell arelatively simple storiy that is tinged with melancholy using ironic artifice in the presentation. Anderson’s style felt too much like a pose to me in The Royal Tenenbaums, hampering the sadness because the form seemed to whisper constantly, “My, aren’t we being ironic and self-aware about all of this?” There’s something more felt, more balanced in Moonrise Kingdom‘s performances, though, especially those by the two young leads, which renders the sadness much more effective and credible. It no longer feels quite as much as if the director is constantly putting the air quotation marks of irony around everything in his tale, even though the film is stylistically pure Anderson. As a result, Moonrise Kingdom is both a typical, dollhouse-style Wes Anderson confection and a convincingly sweet, touching childhood romance, without the two being at odds with each other. The change is a subtle one – from stills, and probably from the trailer, this will look like any and every film by the director – but it’s definitely worth checking out for those who were ambivalent about his earlier works.

Another 2012 film that I’d heard good things about, Another Earth, turned out to be more of a disappointment. It attempts to marry a relatively generic drama premise (a young woman destroys a man’s life when she, drunk and distracted, crashes her car into his, killing his wife and child) to a sci-fi high concept: one day, a second earth appears, visible from our planet, and get this: that planet is identical to ours in every way.

What a weird, wasted premise. The film later goes back on it, but for most of its duration we’re made to believe that this other earth is identical to our own, the people on it are identical to us. It’s a mirror image – but what good is a mirror image if it doesn’t allow us to contrast what we believe we will see with what we actually see? Another Earth‘s mirage in the sky is a concept that’s used to surprisingly little effect, with little reality for much of the film. In a story that is about regret, wouldn’t a more intriguing move be to make this second earth a constant reminder of “What if”? Since the film has already suggested that things on this second world are identical to ours, it’s not a mirror so much as a copy.

Except, in the film’s last fifteen minutes, there’s suddenly the suggestion that while the two earth’s were identical, this synchronicity was shattered when Earth 2 was first glimpsed, moments before the crash that sets the story into motion. So why not have this as the premise to begin with? For more than an hour, the second earth is a visual, a concept, but a vague, abstract one, a pretty but pointless intrusion on a fairly standard drama about guilt, regret and second chances. Earth mark 2 only comes into focus for the film’s ending, coming across as a half-baked idea in serious need of a rewrite.

... but it does make for nice stills!

What doesn’t help is that the film is too languid, too slow, to keep the viewer distracted from some uncomfortable questions. The main character, before going to prison after the accident that kicks off the plot, wants to go to MIT. She is in love with the universe and its mysteries. Yet the second earth makes not a jot of sense: it starts off small, then gets bigger and bigger, so doesn’t that suggest it’s a threat to earth, a more familiar double of Melancholia‘s eponymous planet? How can such a planet be identical to ours in every way if it doesn’t share our orbit, miraculously appears one day and then comes closer, growing ever bigger in the sky? These questions, to be quite honest, should be absolutely irrelevant – von Trier’s film couldn’t have sustained such science-minded inquiries either – since the celestial doppelgänger ought to be relevant in thematic terms, not scientific ones, but Another Earth fails to make the sci-fi element resonate with its theme. The big blue bauble just hangs there while the fairly predictable, though well-acted, earth-bound drama ensues. Note to the writers: if your main story conceit is irrelevant to the story you’re telling for 80% of its running time, perhaps it’s not that good an idea in the first place. Think about it.

Up in the air with flying foxes and less-than-fantastic goats

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.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W460QxYQgh4]

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: