Finally, disciples of Wes Anderson can feel vindicated – not that they ever cared – for their faith in a filmmaker whose efforts seem to hit and miss with the masses (particularly the critics) but which never stop providing constant joys to those blessed with the sight and souls to recognize and to feel the powerful beauties that he is so gifted at producing. (Let the record show that only one sentence was filled with over-the-top praise and swoonery for our friend Wes.)
I will try to refrain (note: “try”) from delving into the “metascopic” ramifications of Wes’ films and the fascinating phenomenon of their diverse but predictable receptions into the general public. It’s the film that deserves attention: Fantastic Mr. Fox. Following the release of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, there was word of Wes’ next project: an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, the sort of thing one expects Tim Burton to do, not Wes Anderson. The news was that Henry Selick – Burton’s collaborator on The Nightmare Before Christmas – would work with Wes to produce a stop motion animation film geared toward children and featuring a cast composed largely of actors Wes fans have seen and heard before. Some of us were, we confess, worried that good Wes was beginning his move toward selling out. This is the sort of thing directors and actors are good at doing, after all: finding some success with challenging movie work, then producing general-audience crowd-pleasers. At heart, we knew Wes wouldn’t do that sort of thing. The only other person trying was Spike Jonze, whose Where The Wild Things Are back in those days was looking like it would never be made. How does Hollywood successfully wed serious “independent” talent (someone with a unique artistic vision – nay, an “auteur”) with a bankable story intended for audiences young and old alike? We may appreciate Brad Bird and Andrew Hanson, but they’re really not “independent” talent.
While we were wondering this, Wes pulled a fast one on us, announcing a film called The Darjeeling Limited. More in the vein of his previous work, this one would be filmed mostly in India, bring Jason Schwartzman back into the fold, and feature real people with no puppets. This was more like it. Let the children grow old waiting for their “Mr. Fox” and let us have our vintage Wes Anderson grub. What we got was something great but something fairly vintage in Darjeeling; not that it didn’t have some great and interesting nuances from the other films. Years later (or longer), the trailer for Fantastic Mr. Fox was released, and immediately after (during, even), some of us confessed our sin of momentary doubt, realizing that this was something remarkable, something wonderful. Blast all those short films the studio subsequently released showing how they set up the puppets, etc., etc. Haven’t watched them, probably won’t for awhile. That would be like reading a book on the techniques of a magician (sorry, an “illusionist”) before, or soon after, going to a magic show. Sometimes it’s better to let beauty be beauty than to understand its inner workings.
Mr. Fox starts out like a silent film. Of course, it starts out as a book, quite like Rushmore and Tenenbaums, with an intertitle on the first page: “Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. One short, one fat, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean.” Unlike those films, though, this one starts without a soundtrack. The cut to Mr. Fox on his hill, then the trademark reverse-shot perpendicular cut to Mrs. Fox about to ascend it, happen without any real sound. The character movements are fast and jagged; it looks a little like Buster Keaton at a distance. This changes, of course, and music figures prominently throughout the film, to our great joy. British Invasion tunes are in sync with Mr. Fox’s invasion of the chicken coop, and the Beach Boys (a new one for Wes) set the new tone when Mr. Fox and the crew prepare to retaliate against “the man” in the disheveled but strangely organized manner of a bunch of West-Coast surfers, each knowing his part. This offsets the opening silence of the film, which stands out even more on the second viewing. Everything about the production of this film has been based on old standards; no computer imagery was allowed, and the stop-motion style itself hearkens back to a dated look. The early nod to silent cinema points to a source for all of Wes’ films that makes sense. He’s always loved staging his scenes as if they were in a play – at times very overtly indeed. This very theater-like mode of filmmaking defined early films, before directors and cinematographers learned new ways of moving cameras around to create something uniquely cinematic. Wes loves cinema enough to wallow in his film-history ruts, from silent cinema to the French New Wave.
The detail(s) of Mr. Fox is being mentioned a lot, and for good reason. Certainly Wes’ films have been getting progressively more detailed, going along with the “staged” aspect to his filmmaking style. (A personal favorite is the closet scene in Tenenbaums; all those board games…) There is enough detail in this film not to have any idea where to begin. For example, my eyes were somewhere else on the screen during the first viewing when, after which it was mentioned to me, the word “CUSS” appeared in graffiti on a building in the town. (The “cuss” gag, by the way, has to be the most creative way for a film to sidestep profanity and maintain a PG rating that has ever been.) Wes’ protagonists have always enjoyed their style: Dignan (yellow jumpsuits), Max (the hat), Royal (the suits), Steve (the beanie, etc.), and the Whitman boys (custom Louis Vuitton). Mr. Fox is no different in kind but rather in degree: he dresses more like Wes Anderson himself than any other W.A. character. The careful symmetry of the film and the Fox home within the film display all the tell-tale signs of a certain familiar look. However, at the precise moment when the viewer is becoming accustomed to this hyper-perfect surrealism, Mr. Fox sits down for breakfast and shocks the viewer by eating the way a wild animal eats. This and the cussfest between Mr. Fox and Badger (Bill Murray, thank you for returning), along with other scenes, are delightful indications that this film and its characters are really wild at heart.
Ironic about this film’s reception (and, we’re back into it) is that it’s been embraced as something fresh and different from a director who apparently could only make one kind of film. With no intention of selling short the special beauty of Mr. Fox, it’s worth noting that thematically it is uncannily similar to all of Wes’ previous films. A fearless leader, unhappy with a status-quo life, bands together a small community of outcasts all connected somehow for a particular goal, a goal that serves merely as a façade concealing the desire for togetherness that unites them. I know of no simpler way of boiling down Wes’ main theme than this, and even now the number of little exceptions and nuances in all the films clamor for attention. Mr. Fox is the quintessential Wes Anderson character, this time given a nice touch by George Clooney, whose efforts with the Coen brothers in particular give him all the right stuff for this role. (Think O Brother, Where Art Thou? especially.)
With the exception of Bottle Rocket, each of Wes’ films has included death at some layer. In Rushmore, the memories of Max’s mom and Miss Cross’ husband surface many times. In Tenenbaums, the family visits the gravesite of Chas’ wife and Royal’s mother; the dog Buckley’s death and Royal’s own at the film’s finale make death particularly integral to that film. The Life Aquatic practically opens with a death scene, seen through a filmstrip showing Steve’s friend Esteban get eaten by a jaguar shark. The death of Steve’s son Ned later in the film is shocking for its rawness; it’s the kind of scene no one expects in an Anderson film. Obviously The Darjeeling Limited has everything to do with death. Some form or another of the word “die” is mentioned many times in Mr. Fox, perhaps surprising some parents who took their children to see it. As animals who steal from humans for a living, their lives are in danger from the first scene, and Mrs. Fox is typically the one to suggest that they may die. The only death that does occur (other than a few silly beagles – they really do love blueberries) is that of Rat. Rat is an interesting character, one easy to take for granted. He functions as a sort of counterpoint to Wolf. Wolf is talked about a few times, usually scaring Mr. Fox by the power of suggestion. Wolf is something transcendent, beautiful, and fearsome. His only appearance gives rise to a wow-sensation, standing there with authority, dignity, and – most importantly in Wes Anderson’s world – independence. He is his own creature, and his ability to survive and thrive on his own means that the characters in the film, just like the audience watching it, will never see him close-up. He is an enigma that Wes himself doesn’t seem to understand, and so how can his characters?
Rat is similar but located on the other end of the spectrum. Instead of beauty and dignity, he’s defined by ugliness and unseemliness. He runs his own show, too, but without the beauty and poise of Wolf, Rat is destined to die, which he does. Mr. Fox and the others pity him as much as they fear him, whether they’re locking him into a chest while they steal cider or are giving him his last sip before his pupils turn into little X’s. When Ash sorrows for Rat and suggests his redemption, Mr. Fox says something to the effect of, “But in the end he’s just another dead rat in a garbage dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant.” Isn’t this like Ari and Uzi giving a BB-gun salute at Royal’s funeral or Max deciding not to fell a tree on Mr. Blume while visiting Max’s mother’s grave? These death scenes in Wes’ films are often punctuated or offset with humor. The effect doesn’t seem to be to dampen the gravity of the scenes, but to lend something human to them. Wes only took the big, humorless risk with two death scenes – in Life Aquatic and Darjeeling, and the latter worked better than the former. Rat’s death in Mr. Fox gives the ugly character some final beauty, as he confesses how all he really wanted was some nice cider.
All of Wes’ protagonists – all of his characters, really – live on the edge. Or, if they’re not, they will be soon. Without the risk of death in some form, there is no life, even in a children’s movie. Just as clear as that, the risk is always taken collectively, never as individuals. At one point in the film, Mr. Fox sets out to sacrifice himself for the cause. He leaves everyone and heads toward the danger, but he’s back in a flash, proclaiming, “Suicide mission canceled,” and proclaiming a new and better plan that maximizes the strengths of everyone (demolitions expert!). The only way an individual succeeds by himself (yes, usually “himself”) is when others are nearby also desperately trying to succeed for the sake of the group. Often the victories are accidental, such as Ash breaking Kristofferson out of his cage, but they’re still victories. There’s no way to put a bottom line to one of Wes’ films, in my book. So, I’ll finish here by shouting out to Jason Schwartzman and Wally Wolodarsky, whose voices in Mr. Fox provided more delight and laughs than I’ve experienced in a cinema in awhile. Also, these images are great: