Wes Anderson took stop-motion animation to another level in a charming story of friendship & adventure.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For Thanksgiving, we’re going off the beaten path this month and asking contributors to write about the movie they’re most thankful for experiencing. Read the rest of our coverage here.
It was either this or Old Dogs.
It was Thanksgiving 2009 and thirteen-years-old Douglas Laman was preparing to see a movie with his Mimi. Old Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox were the two biggest new releases of that week (Mimi had no interest in fellow new release Ninja Assassin). Since Mimi was cool with seeing either, it was down to me figure out what new piece of cinema we’d partake in over that holiday weekend. I was hotly debating which of the two to watch, but opted for the stop-motion critters simply because the reviews for Old Dogs were dismal. While I had long been familiar with the Roald Dahl book Fantastic Mr. Fox book was based on, I had no clue who Wes Anderson, was or what kind of film he made.
I went in totally ignorant of Wes Anderson, but needless to say, I wouldn’t soon forget how thoroughly unique his aesthetic was after watching Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Throughout 2009 and 2010, I had a number of moviegoing experiences that not only exposed me to famous filmmakers for the first time, but also thoroughly expanded my expectations for what cinema could accomplish. The Social Network, Where the Wild Things Are, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, these were some of the formative movies that totally altered my perception of movies. Fantastic Mr. Fox certainly belongs in that group as well for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it’s the only one of these movies that managed to upend my expectations for what you could do with animation.
While I had been exposed to stop-motion animation plenty of times before (I was a major Wallace & Gromit fan as a child), I had never seen stop-motion animation like the style used in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Whereas modern-day computer animation and motion-capture animation is intent on replicating reality, the characters here looked unabashedly like dolls, had rigid movements and inhabited environments more keen on looking visually interesting than emulating reality. To boot, the characters spoke like no other characters I had seen in any other animated family movie. They didn’t talk down to kids, they didn’t speak in pop culture references, none of that was found in here.
Instead, Mr. Fox and his friends & family, despite being walking, talking animals adorned in intricately designed costumes, talked like actual people, their sentences overlapping each other as they expressed their emotions in realistically messy ways. Mr. Fox’s son Ash wasn’t a cutesy quip-delivering kid, like Max in Spike Jonze’s fellow 2009 kids movie masterwork Where the Wild Things Are, he talks and behaves like an actual troubled child. All of this discernibly human behavior from creatures who couldn’t be more divorced from reality should result in chaos, but instead, it results in something outright wonderful.
Watching this unorthodox fusion play out before my eyeballs back in 2009 was a mind-blowing experience on a number of levels, including how it made me realize you could take the tools of American animation to make something that didn’t have to adhere to the Pixar or DreamWorks playbook. Looking back on it, one could even apply that sentiment to all of cinema as a whole, animated or otherwise. I had never seen a movie with the sensibilities of a Wes Anderson motion picture up to this point, and it astonished me to see such idiosyncratic personality come through in a feature film. The creativity audacity that informs a comedic scene like the Petey’s Song sequence was palpable throughout all of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to all the possibilities that could be accomplished through cinema. There was no going back.
Even when revisiting this movie earlier this year as a far more experienced moviegoer, Fantastic Mr. Fox still played like magic. What especially impressed me returning to this personally formative movie is how it’s wall-to-wall goodness, without a dud scene to be found. There’s always a gag, a visual, a line delivery or something else happening on-screen to capture your interest, and you could watch it half-a-dozen times and still not capture every detail on-screen.
Such a feat makes it clear that, even if I didn’t have such a personal attachment to it, this would still be an excellent piece of filmmaking that may be the best film in Wes Anderson’s impressive filmography. However, given how personally important Fantastic Mr. Fox was for furthering my passion for cinema as an art form, there’s really no other film more appropriate for me to be thankful for than Fantastic Mr. Fox. Thank God I chose to see it that fateful November 2009 day over Old Dogs!