Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Dir. Wes Anderson

For what it could have been, anyone might have assumed Wes Anderson was the perfect director for a film adaptation of the Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson has a history of channeling the repressed trauma of childhood and chronicling the misplaced desires of patriarchs while still being lovingly committed to traditional familial values and affection. However, while Dahl presented a knowing and gentle sympathy for children, Anderson's Mr. Fox appears mysteriously callous toward kids and adults alike. In the last decade, the director's profound empathy for his characters has receded leaving in its wake a shallow, superficially delightful circus of fantastic auteurist signifiers (the “Anderson trademarks”: slow motion sequences over 60s pop music, perfectionist refinement of costume and set detail, banal quirkiness, etc.). What makes Anderson's films fun to watch used to be meticulously balanced with what made them difficult to watch. His archetypes (the unholy trinity of The Loser, The Stoic Wife and The Bastard) though recognizable throughout his filmography have been systematically reduced from flawed but beautiful statues to infantile water color portraits. Much as Mr. Fox delights in lateral movement over depth of field (see the film's opening sequence) so too has Wes Anderson come to delight in fanciful vision over rigorous realization.

Perhaps the question really is: why the high standards for Anderson? While he is certainly of the American school of auteurism, beyond The Royal Tenenbaums it is arguable that Anderson has done little that is anywhere near as complete. Rushmore is the pretentious purist's favorite while The Life Aquatic was perhaps his most accessible film (or at least most widely seen) before Fantastic Mr. Fox. Darjeeling Limited was a failure on almost every level and one is hard pressed to find a casual viewer whose actually seen Bottle Rocket. However, this lack of obviousness, the vague sense of the occult, is what brings viewers back to Anderson's films even if they themselves don't realize it. While Anderson's most important elements and themes came together with exquisite empathy in The Royal Tenebaums, it has largely been left up to the viewer to discern the importance (or lack thereof) in the remainder of his oeuvre.

And for the most part it has been there: the psychological portraits of the aforementioned archetypes and their patient and sympathetic dissection, the non-linear transgressions into bizarre, idiosyncratic worlds, and the strangely updated sign posts of classic cinema. Anderson has always represented an intentional and thus self-aware digression from the norms of Hollywood. Despite his big name rosters he has never been an actor's director. His films are alternatingly cathartic and not with narrative structures that air on the side of nomadic and ephemeral. Though his art direction is compulsively organized, the films themselves appear loose, capable of going in one direction or another; shifting their weight distractedly while making plot decisions on the fly. There are no real surprises in Anderson's filmography because everything is some kind of a surprise.

So, where does Fantastic Mr. Fox fit into all this cerebral cinephilia? It doesn't. The trend one could identify as early as The Life Aquatic has been fully realized. With Mr. Fox, Anderson has largely abandoned his early earnest efforts to portray unrealized characters. He opts instead for the venue of children's film and uses it as an excuse for lazy and hopelessly disappointing workmanship. Mr. Fox, (here The Bastard becomes not a “son-of-a-bitch” but a “Wild Animal”) is worse than his predecessors, who recited self-prepared speeches about their obvious short comings without really believing in them, by knowingly betraying the one's who care about him all the while celebrating for them their fortune at having such a “fantastic” presence in their lives. This difference is naturally thin and difficult to nail down in writing but painfully obvious on screen. It is also greatly aided by an important inter-oeuvre thematic transgression: constant character (and thus viewer) empathy for The Bastard. Compare the way Mr. Fox's family (with the exception of his son Ash who plays the alienated and hopelessly self-deluded Loser) and friends treat his selfish actions throughout the film with the coldness Royal Tenenbaum is met with upon his return to his family home. Despite the seemingly great lengths that Mr. Fox goes to win back the respect and adoration of everyone (ironic yet expected given that this has always been his intention) they are physical not emotional hurdles. The 85 minute adventure narrative condenses all Anderson's once carefully detailed themes into visual tropes and dull exposition.

Anderson has always loved The Bastard, the one who turned his back on everyone who ever gave a damn about him in order to satisfy some internal, animalistic and deeply (although never too deeply) repressed desire. Mr. Fox is Anderson's most simplified and fully-realized Bastard. A self declared Wild Animal, Anderson embraces this default persona and calls for all the film's animals to all become “Wild,” which, if we follow the analogy, means they should all become slaves to their respective primal instincts. Which, especially at the point during which this action is called for by Mr. Fox, should not involve working together to help the the bastard who has, of course, single-handedly gotten them into their current predicament. The Bastard used to be a loner in Anderson's films: the guy no one wanted to see, much less help. In Fantastic Mr. Fox he becomes the down-and-out self-sacrificing character who all other characters eventually come to pity despite that he has not truly changed nor attempted to. Which, for anyone dedicated to the subtly of Anderson's films, is even more disappointing than the film's deplorable deus ex machina finale. In the end, despite Fantastic Mr. Fox being the ill-fitting puzzle piece of Wes Anderson's authentic puzzle of modern relationships, the film is best summarized by the simple platitude (which is also Anderson's uncomfortable, obvious and contradictory self-reference) Mrs. Fox expresses at the film's cavernous mid-point: this story is just too predictable.

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