Fantastic? Or, Yes but not really

by TheLitCritGuy



Whenever anybody looks back at their childhood there are a few things that tend to form your cultural backbone. The books and films and music and art and experiences that were important – the things that helped form who you are and the specific tastes you have. As you grow up, it is these things, these important and special things that you become protective over- things that you don’t want to see people neglect or not understand the way that you do. With that as the beginning here, let’s talk about Roald Dahl. The Norwegian born and British adopted author is, for me, and countless others who grew up at the same time and place, an incredibly important writer. As per usual I’m just trying to be honest and when it comes to Dahl and his books I can’t really be impartial.

The magic and genius of Roald Dahl was his ability to accurately capture the dark side of a child’s perception about the world. The world as Dahl and many, many children (myself included) was magical, yes, but could also be deeply unfair, mean and even dangerous. Dahl’s novels are full of brave and intelligent characters that have to deal with grotesque monsters and unfair conditions in order to get their happy ending. And grown up people? They can often be the biggest problem rather than any kind of help.

The book/film under consideration today probably isn’t one of Dahl’s best known and it is definitely one of the shortest and, on an initial reading, simplest stories – Fantastic Mr Fox.  If you’ve never read the book (I’ll stifle my cry of disbelief) it is classic Dahl, rich and funny yes, but deeply disturbing and set in a world where death lurks behind every corner. The plot follows the adventures of Mr Fox (imaginatively named) and his family as he makes his living stealing from the three mean and greedy farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. The farmers find out what the cunning animal is up to and, after nearly shooting him to death, try to dig him out. I won’t spoilt the books ending but the good guys are OK and the bad guys….well, let’s just say that with the three farmers their ending will perfectly appeal to a child’s occasionally jet black and ironic sense of justice.

As per usual with Dahl it is the details that make the story so great – the three farmers are beautifully sketched grotesques, one of them surviving on just cider, one of them only eating chicken and the other eating nothing but livers mashed into doughnuts.  The three make  compelling villains, arrayed against the simple animal just trying to keep his family safe.

I remember being initially sceptical when news of a film initially broke – it seemed like the plot was too slight to sustain a whole feature film. But then I found I out who was directing – Wes Anderson. Perhaps counter-intuitively once I knew the hipster god-king of American indie cinema was going to be involved I relaxed a little, because if there is one thing that Anderson has consistently proven he can do is interesting aesthetics married to characters facing an occasionally dark and scary world.

So onto the film, made as a stop motion animation (thank goodness, a live action version would have been unspeakably creepy) it makes the correct judgement of not trying to spread the books plot too thin. Thus, the film’s second half is really the plot of the book and the first is Wes Anderson playing around with the characters and giving them his own particular spin. Here Fox, voiced by George Clooney is a man (animal?) who has given up on stealing chickens and has settled down for a quiet life with his wife – voiced by Meryl Streep and son played by Jason Schwartzman. Mr Fox runs into a bit of a midlife crisis and hearing the call of the wild side of his own nature starts stealing from the three toughest and scariest farmers in the valley.

So, is it a good film? Most definitely.

A good adaptation?

Well, that is slightly more complicated….

Strictly speaking the answer would have to be no, the plot and characters are changed significantly and the overall style is very different. Some scenes are quite jarring in how out of place they are (the scene with the wolf being a text book ‘big lipped alligator moment) but the film is certainly more than just the sum of its parts. For one thing the script is excellent, managing as Dahl did to capture the childlike story without becoming patronizing or overly romanticizing. When Fox’s wife realizes what he’s done and the consequences, her response of ‘I love you but I shouldn’t have married you’ shows how the script pulls of simplicity and sophistication. Yes, this is, I suppose, a kid’s movie but it isn’t a movie made AT kids. It depends upon them being familiar with the harder stuff, the drama and dark side of life when you are small and vulnerable. It may sound a little vague but it is this that makes the film a ‘good’ adaptation – the sense that the original message of the book is being carried onwards.

At its core the film celebrates the uniqueness of the individual. Though Mr Fox is a thief, he does it because he’s a wild animal and that is just who he is. His son isn’t as athletic and outgoing as his father – and that’s OK because that’s who HE is. So, it may not be a traditionally great adaptation but it is one that treats its source material with respect and no little amount of joy. It looks gorgeous, has a great cast (Willem Defoe being a highlight for me) and a story that captures some of the spark that made youngsters like me love Dahl. It’s fantastic alright, but like nothing else I’ve reviewed – just as it should be really.