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.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

When Royal Tenenbaum mentions visiting his dead mother’s grave with his kids, Margot, his adopted daughter, reminds him that she was never invited to go as a child. His response is priceless for its aloofness and insensitivity: he claims he was never quite sure she wanted to go, since the old woman wasn’t really her grandmother. Writer and director Wes Anderson gives his titular character quite a number of such “thick” moments. At first glance, they seem outrageous. But once we peel back the fantastical elements of Anderson’s cinematic style, we find such moments grounded in the truthfulness of lived experience.Anderson’s third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums offers a spot on portrayal of familial dysfunction, viewed through the lens of a comic fairy tale world where everything seems slightly skewed from reality. When Royal hears that his wife of many years has received a marriage proposal, he determines to recapture his place in the family. Yet when he arrives, he’s surprised to be met by children who are essentially unchanged from their adolescent selves. They’ve simply not been able to move on and grow up, a result of the damage caused in the wake of Royal’s leaving two decades earlier.The way the rest of the film interacts with images of death, suffering, and loss drives home the pain resulting from broken homes. This pain doesn’t subside simply because people go on with their lives as they had before the split. Rather, a fundamental change of direction is needed for this family, and it only comes after Royal is found out for faking a terminal illness, exposed for the liar he is. At that moment he realizes the change must begin with him, the failed patriarch.

Three scenes at the family plot illustrate the progression of the Tenenbaums. Early in the film, Royal and the kids visit his mother’s grave. Rather than it being a bonding time, it serves only to illustrate the anger of Chas, the alienation of Margot, and the misdirection of Richie. True to form, Royal remains completely oblivious to the causes of their feelings, acting instead as if he is the one being wronged by their insensitivity.

Much later in the film, after Royal has been booted from the Tenenbaum home, he visits the grave alone. He has been officially removed from the family. They’ve all rejected him, even Richie the peacemaker. But the seeds of change were planted in that rejection, so this time, he uses the opportunity at the graveside to reflect on his separation from the family. What should he do for them? He decides to give his wife Ethel a long overdue divorce, paving the way for her to proceed with her wedding to Henry.

The final time at the cemetery comes after Ethel and Henry’s wedding. In the aftermath of the wedding, Anderson employs a fantastic two and a half minute tracking shot that effectively brings together the once-fragmented family. The unity between form and content plays out beautifully here, and after a couple of subsequent scenes, we find out Royal has died.

Anderson once again brings us back to the cemetery. This time though, as the entire family gathers to pay their last respects, it’s clear they’ve been changed in their opinion of Royal Tenenbaum. His death engenders fond memories, rooted in the change of direction he made. He saw the destruction caused by his selfish actions and purposed to offer something positive in its place.

The cemetery, once only a place of death and alienation, takes on a new character at the film’s conclusion. Without necessarily leaving those negative or neutral things behind, it also becomes a place where family and friends gather to think about a life well lived. Of course, that’s only the case when the people buried in cemeteries decide to live this life in a way worthy of such an honor.