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I’ve got a lot of love for Roald Dahl, even if he was a bit of an unpleasant cuss. He taught me how to read, after all. When I was around four or five years old I was taken to Temple Street children’s hospital for one of my periodic lung re-inflations (I had asthma and smog in Dublin in the eighties was so thick you could chip your teeth on it). While waiting to be seen I picked up a copy of The Magic Finger, which I remember being the first book I ever read through from beginning to end. Dahl was huge when I was growing up. He was our JK Rowling. That probably says something about us, but then again, I think it’s often overstated just how violent and horrifying his stories were. I mean, sure, they were violent and horrifying, but it was all a matter of tone. Roald Dahl was like Rebecca Black, he sounded a lot worse than he actually was. A plot description The BFG or The Witches is arguably more horrific than the books themselves. Roald Dahl took horror and made it so ridiculous and luridly over the top that you couldn’t help but laugh at it. In doing so, he made our terrors ridiculous. I think that’s why so many children loved his work, even nervous kids like me. Roald Dahl didn’t make us feel scared. He made us feel brave.
.waiting under a tree at sunset for his girlfriend Felicity, (Meryl Streep) and yeah, this is a classy cast. Cuss, the tree is probably played by Jack Nicholson in an uncredited cameo. The animation here is fantastic, if it’s not quite on the level of Coraline it’s still damn impressive. I should also point out that, despite Wes Anderson being credited as director, the animation (y’know, the actual film) was directed by Mark Gustafson with Anderson directing the vocal performances. Mr Fox is listening to The Ballad of Davy Crockett on his Walkman from the old Disney mini-series (yes, yes, I’ll probably review it sometime between now and when I am taken by the cold hand of death). And because this is a Wes Anderson film (hey, it may have been directed by Mark Gustafson but it is most definitely a Wes Anderson film) that means something. Everything in this movie means something. Do I know what it all means? Cuss, no. But I can take a stab at this, at least. See, despite the PG rating and the animals and the animation and the child-friendly lack of cussing, this is not a movie for children. It is very firmly rooted in adult fears and worries, specifically losing the vibrancy and independence of your youth (being “a wild animal”) and settling down into the respectably, ho-hum routine of family life. Right now, Mr. Fox is “the king of the wild frontier”, free of worries and responsibilities. The two foxes raid a squab farm and get caught in a fox trap. Felicity tells Fox that she’s pregnant and that if they get out of this alive he’s got to get a new job, preferably one where being torn apart by dogs isn’t called “the retirement plan”. Fox grudgingly agrees. So. Two years later, which is twelve fox years, which is, lemme see…forty mouse years (wow, big time skip) Fox and Felicity are now married and have a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman).
So, Fox has now settled down, given up his dreams of a career as a poultry thief and is now slogging away in the thankless, mundane role of…are YOU CUSSING KIDDING ME!?
Wow. That poor guy. Having to give up on his hopes and dreams to become a respected print journalist and earn a living through his writing. Seriously, do you have any idea how depressing it is when someone else’s career which they reluctantly settled for is one that you would almost literally kill to have? My heart bleeds for you, Foxy. Pure, distilled, envy. Like many middle-class people trying to fill the gaping hole in their lives, Fox decides that buying a bigger property is the answer and tells Felicity that he wants to buy a home above ground. He explains that he’s already 1400 mouse years old and that his father died at 1500 and that he doesn’t want to live in a hole anymore. He takes a look at a magnificent beech tree house where he meets Kylie (Wally Woodarsky) the superintendent. Kylie is an opossum, because apparently someone didn’t get the memo that this movie is set in England and that opossums are native to North America.
When Fox sees that the tree overlooks three farms arranged symmetrically, he impulsively decides to buy and goes to his lawyer, Badger, voiced by Bill Murray.
Badger patiently explains to Fox that he’s buying way out of his price range and in a neighbourhood where they don’t take kindly to foxes. He explains that the three farmers who would be his neighbours are Boggis, Bunce and Bean, one short, one fat, one lean and that these horrible crooks so different in looks are nonetheless equally mean. Actually that’s not exactly true. Bean, voiced by Michael Gambon, is quite clearly the nastiest of the three. Okay, want to hear something really cool? Alright, Roald Dahl was good friends with Ian Fleming who he met when they were both in the Irregulars, a British spy outfit who’s job was basically to get America into the war by…drinking vast quantities of alcohol and seducing beautiful American heiresses.
And I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right, in all probability Roald Dahl was one of the real-life influences on James Bond. Which makes it absolutely awesome that Bean is introduced in this movie not only looking very like Roald Dahl but holding a gun in a rather familiar pose.
My head canon is now that Connery’s James Bond retired, passed the mantle to Roger Moore and moved to the English countryside under a new name to farm turkeys and brew cider. Nothing you can say can dissuade me. Badger goes on to say that Bean is “skinny as a pencil, smart as a whip, and possibly the scariest man currently living.”
But Fox cannot be swayed and tells Badger to buy the tree anyway. So the Fox family move in and everything seems swell but Fox is clearly up to something, as he can be seen watching the nearby farms through a pair of binoculars.
Oh and I almost forgot. Through the binoculars he sees his nephew Kristofferson, a precocious child voiced by Eric Chase Anderson whose being sent to live with the Fox family beacause his father is sick and in hospital.
Ash pretty soon starts to resent Kristofferson because he’s taller, and more attractive and naturally co-ordinated and generally just less of a total load to be around. Ash also starts to worry that his father prefers Kristofferson to him.
Fox secretly ropes Kylie into helping him pull of One Last Heist, explaining that they’ll deal with the beagles that Boggis has guarding his chicken farm by feeding them drugged blueberries. He explains that beagles love blueberries which isn’t actually true but is a nice little callback to the whole “feeding pheasants raisins dosed with sleeping powder” trick from Danny the Champion of the World. Meanwhile, Kristofferson is making a big impression in Ash’s school where he joins the local Whack Bat team and runs a perfect niner split, whack batting the burning pine cone over the basket and creaming the cedar stick off the cross rock before the twig runners even know what’s happening and running up the scoredowns before the umpire yells “hot box!”. This is all explained over some plunking harpischord music by the team coach, voiced by Owen Wilson.
I gotta say, this whole scene is baffling to me. I mean, who the hell doesn’t understand the rules of Whack Bat?
Realising that Kristofferson’s natural ability could be an asset, Fox decides to take him along when he goes to steal Bean’s cider. This ensures that he joins the ranks of characters who I love but who nonetheless are probably crazy and should not be allowed near children at all costs.
In Bean’s cider cellar they run into Rat, brilliantly played with a menacing drawl by Willem Dafoe
Rat is a great villain, not just because he’s a creepy ass giant rat with a switch blade, killer martial arts skills and a seriously menacing voice performance. He’s great because he’s a foil for Fox on both the physical and the psychological level. One of the first thing’s Rat says to Fox is to mention how Felicity was the “town tart in her day”. Fox, to his credit, brushes this off saying “She lived. We all did. Let’s not use a double standard” before kicking Rat’s ass (admittedly with a little help from Kristofferson). But before they can am-scray with the cider, Bean’s wife comes down to the cellar.
Fortunately, all those years of peering in the murky ocean floor for seashells have left her with very poor eyesight so Fox, Kylie and Kristofferson are able to escape with enough booze to give Oliver Reed liver failure. They arrive back at the tree to find Felicity waiting for them in the darkened kitchen (never a good sign) and Meryl Streep delivers possibly my favourite line of the movie: “If what I think is happening, is happening? It better not be.”
Too late unfortunately, as Boggis, Bunce and Bean are lying in wait outside the tree in a bush and as soon as Fox appears they blast his tail off.
As Felicity tends his wound Ash asks if it’ll grow back and Kylie explains to him that no, severed fox limbs do not grow back (that’s wolverines). Suddenly the farmers attack with bulldozers, forcing the entire family to dig deeper and deeper underground (there’s too much panic in this town).
Remember that song? By Jamiroquai? It was on the Godzilla 1998 soundtrack…
Bean takes the tail and starts wearing it as a tie while his men lay siege to the Fox family’s hole while they sit around in their pyjamas and wonder what they’re going to do next.
Felicity takes Fox aside and tears him a new one, asking him what the ever living CUSS he thinks he’s doing bringing all this cuss down on his family. She demands to know why he broke his promise to her and Fox simply says “Because I’m a wild animal.”
Felicity answers “You’re also a husband. And a father. This story is too predictable. In the end, we all die. Unless you change.”
Felicity’s not the only one who’s pissed at him either. While tunnelling they run into Badger and a whole load of other forest creatures who’ve had to dig to escape the farmers. Badger tells him that their families are trapped at the bottom of a flint mine with no food, no water and no wi-fi, so Fox comes up with a brilliant plan. They dig their way under the three farms and help themselves to a banquet’s worth of chickens, geese, turkey’s and cider. This scene is scored to the wonderful “Petey’s Song”, sung by Jarvis C0cker.
What makes Bean’s furious “You wrote a bad song Petey!” even more hilarious is that he’s being totally sincere. Bean is perfectly civil to Petey in every other scene. He’s not saying that to be a dick, he’s just genuinely appalled by his poor musicianship.
With the banquet underway, Ash approaches Kristofferson and asks for his help. Ash plans to raid Bean’s farmhouse and take back Fox’s tail. They tunnel into Bean’s kitchen and almost get the tail but Honey Rider finds them and captures Kristofferson.
Meanwhile, just as Fox is about to give a triumphant toast, the tunnel is flooded with cider and the animals are washed into the sewer system. While doing a headcount Fox realises that Kristofferson and Ash are missing, and Ash appears and tells him that Kristofferson has been captured.
Rat then shows up and delivers a ransom note from Bean to Fox, saying that unless he surrenders they’ll kill his “son”. Ash says “He’s not his son” and Rat tries to kidnap him but ends up getting electrocuted. As he dies, Rat tells them where Kristofferson is and says that he sold out to the (hu)Man because he was addicted to cider. They give him a last mouthful of cider and he dies.
Fox now rallies the animals by reminding them that they’re not just lawyers, accountants and so on but wild animals with skills and talents and cool Latin names that mean something about their DNA.
They plan a mission to rescue Kristofferson and before they go Fox takes his son aside and tells him how his parents escaped from that fox trap all those fox-years ago. They dug their way out. Fox says: “The whole time I was putting paw over paw with your mother digging beside me, and I thought to myself: I wonder who this little boy or girl is gonna be? Ash, I’m so glad he was you.”
Using the animal skills they’ve been repressing all this time, the critters are able to take the farmers by surprise and Fox uses the ancient fox ability to…steal a motorbike…to get into Bean’s farm. They rescue Kristofferson and Fox, Kylie, Kristofferson and Ash ride out of the farm on a ramp like Evel Keneival.
And then we get…one of my favourite scenes in any movie.
All through the movie Fox has been phobic of wolves, even starting at the very mention of the word. But as they speed away from Bean’s farm on an empty, endless road they see a wolf far in the distance, watching them from a hilltop. Jet black. Expressionless. Feral.
Fox calls out to the wolf and tells him his name.
He asks the wolf if they are in for a harsh winter.
Fox raises a fist in silent salute. The wolf returns the gesture. Fox is moved to tears, and tells his family to wish the wolf well on his journey.
What does it all mean? Cuss if I know. Maybe the wolf is Fox’s own wildness that he’s finally reclaimed. Maybe the returned salute is a reassurance. Yes. You are still a wild animal. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe Fox has realised that he can’t be a wild animal anymore and that he must accept being a father, a husband. That he must accept getting older. That he must, at last, accept death. Maybe Fox’s salute to the black wolf is his way of saying to his own mortality “It’s okay. I’m not afraid of you anymore.”
Or maybe Wes Anderson is being weird for the sake of weird, there’s a first time for everything.
The movie ends, on a bittersweet note. The animals have won but their forest has been destroyed and they now live a mundane suburban existence in the sewer. Fox leads his family through a sewer pipe that opens out into a supermarket (aaaaaaaand I am never shopping there) and he shows them that they will never go hungry. Felicity tells Fox that she’s pregnant again and Fox gives one last speech:
“They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”
The phrase “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” has been used in everything from Wall-E to 12 Years a Slave. At the end of this movie, Fox decides that “surviving” with those he loves is better than “living” without them. It’s a choice that many of us face in our lives. Do we “live”, doing what we’re passionate about and find fulfilling, even though it’ll probably never provide us with a stable income or decent living standard? Or do we survive, taking a job we don’t like and don’t really care about to support those we love? Or do we take the third option, survive by day while by night we metaphorically sneak into the chicken coop, scribbling or painting or singing in the shadows and hoping against hope that one day we’ll be able to do what we love and won’t have to make a choice between “living” and “surviving”? How does that work out?
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday. A new chapter from his novel, The Devil’s Heir, posts every Saturday. Today’s review was made possible thanks to the kind donation of Jacob Charlet. Thanks Jacob! Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android who you should definitely check out.