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Filming the Imagination

Fantastic Mr. Fox is by far the imaginative cinematic hit of the year. Whoever thought that a film starring furry puppets could pack so much punch, be so intelligent, witty, creative, and life affirming and that it could be so packed with meaningful messages and content? Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book does an amazing job of maintaining the integrity of Dahl’s work while also adhering to Anderson’s very distinctive cinematic style. He manages to bring two visionaries together – himself and Dahl – and give us a brilliant, subtle, intelligent film that is both fun and serious. Both Dahl and Anderson share a sympathy for and identification with the outsider in the system. They enjoy exploring how the system works against the outsider and how the outsider rebels against the constraints of the system and maintains his/her free spirit. In Dahl we see it in class and education, and in Anderson we sit it in the construction of the family. But both Dahl and Anderson ultimately create incredibly intelligent and humorous tales of the triumph of the individual over the system.

Created with puppets, stop-motion animation, and miniature sets, the very construction of the film is its own triumph over the system. This is not some high-tech digital production thrown into the fray of all the other high-tech digital productions (featuring no end of hyper chipmunks, ants, hedgehogs and an endless menagerie of pixilated critters). Fantastic Mr. Fox was created entirely by hand. The characters are puppets who are made with real fur and hand-sewn clothes. Their movements are orchestrated by the hands of puppeteers who move them through the micro-world of the handcrafted sets. The miniature sets are like visions of the human imagination come to life. Everything on them is handmade, and each set is rich with texture and detail provided by hand-crafted imaginative ingenuity. The little houses are full of no end of miniature details – calendars, paintings, cups, toys, newspapers, photographs — all handmade.  Grass is made of towels, flames from carved soap, and smoke from cotton. This is a world that invites you to slow down and look and revel in the details.  It is a world full of little collages and menageries that the eyes could explore seemingly forever. And this isn’t a world that is just for children. Anderson is asking all of us to slow down and look, to open up our imaginations, to remember what it is like to appreciate craft and to enjoy our creative spirit free from the easy trappings of mass produced high tech culture (that changes as fast as the scenes in a film because change means more profits for the corporations that produce it). Even the fact that the film is created out of miniatures is a kind of rebel gesture against the giant industry of computer animated films that bombard us at every turn at the multiplex. The small size of the film itself is an act of individual expression against the hordes of the large and everything the large stands for.

By getting down to the basics of handcrafted creative imaginative filmmaking, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also rebelling against  the “system” of children’s entertainment. Children’s entertainment comes in one of two kinds of packages. First, you have the super hyper, computer-generated, five-minute -attention span animated feature that is created to sell buttloads of products. Second, you have the dreadful PG-13 fare which panders to both the adult and the children audience with its violent content. Neither of these types of films offers much in the way of intelligence and creativity. One takes for granted that children would rather react than think, and the other only cares about generating the most revenue from all audiences for the studios and their corporate sponsors. In its way, Fantastic Mr. Fox is reclaiming imagination from the corporate mongers who produce an endless stream of dumbed-down cinematic crap whose sole purpose is to bombard children with so much hyper spew that the only message they get from the movies is to buy the toys, video games, Happy Meals, and other merchandise marketed for the film. Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn’t encourage children to buy products. It asks them to use their imaginations and creative spirit and to go out and create their own toys and play environments.

This kind of creative spirit is witnessed over and over again in the film. In one scene the young Ash and his cousin Kristofferson overcome their differences by watching Ash’s toy train work its way through the magical world of a little miniature village in Ash’s room. The camera pulls back and we see another train trek through the imaginary world of the film, and we are asked to see the imaginative and magical creativity of the world around us, to look at our world like the boys look at the train and to allow imagination to bring us together. In another scene, Mr. Fox makes amends for being arrogant and selfish by proposing an imaginary toast with his friends. The imaginary toast has much more power and effect than the original “real” toast. Mr. Fox raises his invisible glass, drinks his invisible champagne, and smashes the glass with self-produced sound effects. Everyone applauds, and the group comes together and triumphs over the evil corporate triumvirate of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. In one of the final scenes, Fox picks up an apple in the sprawling “International Supermarket” of B, B & B, and he says, “This apple may be artificial, but at least it has stars on it.” So he’s saying, look at what is gives you pleasure, what makes your imagination thrive, and take that and use it as a strength against a system that wants us all to eat artificial apples.  In its construction (handmade versus digital) and its content (in which there is absolutely no digital or computer technology present), the film is about exercising our creativity outside the trappings of technology.  One truly wonderful scene says it all when Possum announces, “Hey everyone! I just picked up a high frequency radio signal with a tin can!” Anything is possible when you free the imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. Fantastic Mr. Fox is not a children’s movie. And it’s not an adult movie. It is a movie that is for all audiences and has appeal for everyone. Much of that appeal, however, does contain themes that will resonate for the adult audience while delivering good messages for kids (just like the books by Roald Dahl which I still love to read).  As we follow the adventures of Mr. Fox, his family, and his friends, one thing is very clear. The movie is largely a celebration of primal human nature and creativity and a call to liberate ourselves from the artificial systems that subvert our natural being. Even if that being is a carnivorous, chicken stealing (and eating) fox, it is much better to be a fox in his natural environment, than a pawn in an artificial environment based on material acquisition and the artificial constructs of class.

It is important to note that all of Mr. Fox’s troubles begin when he decides that he needs to stop living in his natural state (in a hole in the ground), and move up to greener pastures by buying a big tree house above ground. Mr. Fox doesn’t want to “feel poor,” and he somehow has been conditioned to believe that buying a bigger, better, more expensive house above ground will make him feel better. Once he makes that move, it is no surprise that he lives under the shadow of the agri-conglomerate triad of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, three greedy industrial farmers who mass produce the things that Fox most desires – chickens. Lured out of his natural state by the shallow promise of what a big house on the hill will provide, Fox is now taunted by the things his true carnivorous nature desires (chickens) which are in the control of corporate forces. So Mr. Fox decides to return to his natural nature and steal the chickens, and in doing such he brings on a war between the corporate interests and the masses of animals that literally live underneath them. At one point, Mr. Fox sits in his bed, feeling the weight of his bad decisions and says, “I never should have bought this house. It’s lost its value, and now we’re going to lose everything.” If that’s not a lesson for the current economy, then I don’t know what is.

Luckily, Mr. Fox learns his lesson. During the initial battle, the 3 Bs shoot off Mr. Fox’s tail, and the evil Bean wears it as a necktie, sporting the furry appendage like a trophy. Mr. Fox losing his tail and Bean taking possession of it is a symbol of how Mr. Fox’s true animal nature has been held captive by false material desires.  As he digs himself further into a hole (literally), Mr. Fox realizes that he should have just stayed “a fox” and not been lured into a material life that he didn’t need. In a triumphant maneuver, he and his cadre of animal friends lead no less than an underground revolution against the Triple B evil conglomerates.  Part of the revolutionary plot involves replacing the animals’ “human” names with their Latin scientific names, in other words reclaiming their primal nature. Back to their natural selves, the animals invade the industry headquarters, steal the food and bring it back to the masses (a kind of Robin Hood narrative), and, most importantly, they reclaim Mr. Fox’s tail so he is no longer controlled by the agri-corporate interests of the 3 Bs. In a victorious ending, Mr. Fox leads the revolutionary forces into the belly of the beast – the Supermarket (which is sub-headed “The International Supermarkets of Boggis, Bunce and Bean), and he explains how the most important thing is “survival” and that they will learn to live underground in peace and survive off the excesses of the corporate conglomerates above ground.

Some politically correct critics have criticized the movie because Fox and his friends eat the chickens instead of saving them. I must note that, for the record, foxes eat chickens. That is their natural state. That’s what they do. One of the things that I love in the movie is how Mr. Fox is always reiterating, “We’re wild animals.” No matter how civilized the foxes seem to be in their furnished homes with their knick-knacks and ephemera, when it comes time to eat, they dig in with ferocity. No manners, no silverware, no napkins. Just teeth and meat. This reminds me of a complaint that I often voice. I like to think that so many of the ills that plague human beings are a result of a mass desire to deny our animal nature. We like to forget that we are animals, mammals, primates. It is in the corporate interests to foster this alienation from our animal nature because then we are conditioned to rely on products, consumer goods, and commercial culture for our survival and for our pleasure. In fact, like Mr. Fox, we are conditioned to think that we need that bigger house on the hill, the large screen TV to go inside it, and all the other trappings of “civilized” society. We need the pharmaceutical companies’ anti-depressants to keep at bay our anxieties (the strangulating animal inside of us?) and allow us to keep feeding the system that wants to kill our imaginations and our primal being. Well, not in Mr. Fox. In the end, Mr. Fox is a call to nature, and nature in the eyes of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl means a ferocious rebellious spirit fueled by creativity and imagination, a spirit that understands that the system exists but finds a way to live freely within the shadow of that system (go underground and rob the supermarket!).

The characters in the film are certainly celebrations of this free spirit. No doubt, the wily, unruly, anarchistic and opportunistic Mr. Fox (a perfectly cast George Clooney) is a symbol of the torn patriarch, feeling confined by the roles of his responsibility and wanting to exercise his freedom from all that social pressure.  His son, the “different” Ash (played with perfect deadpan panache by Jason Schwartzman),  is a rebel spirit who marches to the beat of his own drum yet ultimately receives the respect he deserves. (Whoever knew a tube sock bandit cap could contain so much rebellious power?) Mrs. Fox (whose lines are delivered with brilliant clarity and wit by Meryl Streep) is the real quiet force in the film, painting her way through the movie, she creates miniature worlds that reflect the outside world (itself, of course, a miniature) and punctuates them with natural phenomenon – tornadoes, lightning. In a way, she is the driving creative spirit of the movie, somehow painting the story as it goes and infusing it with magical and unpredictable nature. All the animal characters are really wonderfully portrayed and all encompass a strange tension between being “wild animals” yet trying to confine themselves to this ordered social world (with clothing and jobs and houses and responsibilities). In the end, the “wild animal” spirit wins out but only in so much as that it is responsible to the other “wild animals” who are living and working together to survive freely in their underground alternative society.

With its focus on anti-corporate, handmade, individual creativity, Fantastic Mr. Fox has reclaimed movies from the market-driven trap of the PG-13 crap, and it has carved out a new place for movies that appeal to both children and adults. However, really this is isn’t a new place at all. It is a classic place, a place where things like imagination and a good screenplay are more important than digital effects and product placement. It’s a place where dialogue is well written, and each line that is spoken is as well-crafted as the handmade sets that the handmade puppets occupy. It is the kind of film whose dialogue is so smart and witty that it harkens back to the comedies of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks who made movies where every line was delivered perfectly and carried weight, humor, and intelligence. Throughout the film, the word “cuss” is used to replace any number of actual cuss words (e.g. “the cuss you are,” “a real cluster cuss”).The use of this word is quite funny and effective, but it is also a very overt gesture toward the movie industry’s  reliance on violence and strong language rather than wit and intelligence for effect.  The use of the word “cuss” is the movie’s way of saying, “Look. We can make smart, funny movies that you can enjoy for their creativity and their use of language and imagination.” Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie that doesn’t pander to corporate interests. It doesn’t dumb down its content or dialogue. Rather it delivers a pure imaginative creative film that respects its audience (of all ages) and our ability to enjoy and appreciate intelligence and creativity in lieu of shallow spectacle.

I can’t say that this movie is a call to political revolution, but it is definitely a call to a call for a revolution of the imagination, to free our creative spirits from the fetters of consumer culture and to create our own magic in this corporate-driven world . It is also a call for movies to reclaim their imagination, and it reminds us that we are capable of enjoying intelligent, witty, creative things that make us think and laugh. It is a movie that inspires us to put down our iPhones and go out and create our own world out of scrap carpet, cotton and soap shavings.  We can do that if we want.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com

 

 

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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