Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Wes Anderson makes family films—thankfully not films in the mold of a movie-of-the-week, complete with poor production values and a sappy ending. Instead, Anderson makes films about families, usually families under some kind of duress or struggling with various forms of dysfunction. And even if they’re not the main characters, it’s the fathers that sit at the locus of the narrative—one dad recently dead in The Darjeeling Limited, an absentee Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic or Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums, or in his most recent effort, a conflicted Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Up to this point in his career, Anderson has filled out his films with generally well-educated, white, and world weary characters. Nothing seems to surprise them—they’ve seen the world, and aren’t all that enamored with the place. There’s an ironic distance to most of their interactions, one that results in plenty of humor, but also one that after five features was beginning to grow stale.

On comes Fantastic Mr. Fox. While it undeniably feels like an Anderson film, continuing with a focus on father figures and carefully framed action, it also seems liberated from the almost singular focus on family dysfunction. That’s in part because, when we meet Mr. Fox and his family, they are a functioning family unit—they all live together, for one, which is a first for an Anderson film. But beyond that, we learn early on that Mr. Fox has sacrificed his career as master-thief for a life in the newspaper business—a job that puts food on the table but doesn’t provide the kind of satisfaction he once received from the thrill of the break-in.

That leads Mr. Fox to have an existential crisis which creates family drama, but that’s a far cry from the all-out dysfunction of Anderson’s previous films. And the film is all the better for it—looser, sillier, and extremely well-paced. What we witness instead is the way a few cracks in the foundation (Mr. Fox’s lack of respect for his promise to Mrs. Fox or Mr. Fox’s continual underestimation of his own son) are exacerbated in crisis; but also how those cracks can be repaired and fortified by relying on one another and sticking together through that crisis.

Anderson’s films always end on a hopeful note, but one that refuses to ignore the difficult realities of living life together as friends and family.  However, Fox feels like Anderson’s most unabashedly hopeful film yet. It avoids the heavily ironic and disengaged tone that was at its height in The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited—possibly a result of Anderson working with animal characters instead of humans. Instead, Anderson presents Mr. Fox and the rest of the cast in a more direct and lively fashion, rejoicing in their foibles and differences and ending with a series of images that evoke both laughter and delight. In the end, the great irony of the film is that Anderson finds the more liveliness in puppets than he has with humans in his last couple of films.

What we have here then is a first for Wes Anderson: a functional family that stays functional throughout the film. They start out together, persevere through their crises, and come out on the other side the stronger for it. That he pulls this off with it still feeling like an Anderson film (quirky characters, off-kilter humor, and moments of beauty) makes it one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in the last year.

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