We all know that Thanksgiving is a sham and that it was really fucked up that our kindergarten teachers had us make feather hats and pick out our spirit animals. As an education major, I worry about how I might deal with Thanksgiving if I’m placed in a school district that isn’t super cool with telling kids about genocide. I don’t want to outright tell them that “Pocahontas” was actually twelve years old when John Smith raped her and ruin “The Colors of the Wind” for them, but I also don’t want to celebrate colonization and mislead them into believing in some myth about a peaceful exchange of maize and turkey.
So instead, I just eat a lot of food and hug my mom and watch “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” A lot of director Wes Anderson’s (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) films could work for the autumnal vibe because of his love of the color orange, but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” has all the gratitude and gluttony that I need to feel okay when I’m home for the holidays.
Based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was released in 2009 to a semi-modest box office of around $46 million in comparison to its $40 million budget. I guess I get it: It’s one of Dahl’s less popular books, and American audiences have this kind of aversion to stop-motion, to the point where I’ve had friends tell me they only enjoyed the film when they got older because they were scared by the animation style when they first saw it. But with a star-studded cast consisting of typical Andersonite cronies like Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) and Willem Dafoe (“The Lighthouse”), it deserved better. It was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Animated Feature at the 2010 Academy Awards, but lost both to “Up,” which I have less respect for because of the Disney machine, but Roald Dahl was just as anti-Semitic as Walt Disney, so it’s a lose/lose anyway.
The plot follows Mr. Fox (George Clooney, “Ocean’s Eleven”) as he battles a kind of middle-aged (in fox years) suburban ennui — no, really — by going back to his old ways of thievery. A group of baddies led by a man named Bean (Michael Gambon, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) terrorize him and the other woodland creatures for stealing from their farms. The book actually ends at around the second act of the film, when Foxy — as Mr. Fox’s wife Felicity (Meryl Streep, “Kramer vs. Kramer”) calls him — tricks them into waiting at a manhole for them to appear from their underground home, giving them the freedom to steal from the unattended farms. The film extends its runtime by adding a guns-ablazing fight and having the animals steal from the farmers’ supermarket chain instead.
It might not sound a lot like Thanksgiving so far, but hear me out. The great feasting that the animals do after stealing from their oppressors is really gratifying to watch over stuffing and mashed potatoes. My siblings and I talk over most of the movie or recite the lines like it’s a showing of “Rocky Horror,” but there are a couple of scenes that we’re always dead silent during.
Early in the movie, Foxy reflects on his life, and how he had to stop his adventures once he had a cub.
“I don’t want to live in a hole anymore,” he tells his wife. “It makes me feel poor.”
“We are poor. But, we’re happy,” she says.
Then, at the end of the day, he stands at the top of their new house in the trunk of a tree with his landlord Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky, “The Darjeeling Limited”) — which, by the way, is so Americana.
Foxy says, “Who am I, Kylie…? Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?”
It’s a common trope in kids movies: undermine the silliness with some sobering reference to adult problems. But here, it’s genuine. It’s not just going for a chuckle, even though the whole film makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it. The thing is, it’s not really a kids movie, it’s just a movie. Anderson takes his audience seriously, no matter how old they are. We all want to be free and wild, whether that means playing in the mud at recess or unbuttoning our oxfords at our 9-5. How can we be happy without a chicken in our teeth?
Anderson takes it even further: A running gag is Foxy’s pathological fear of wolves. When we finally meet one in the final act, it’s startlingly emotional. The wolf isn’t sentient in the same way that the other characters are, only communicating nonverbally and walking on all fours. The group of animals asks him if he thinks they’re in for a long winter, and the wolf “says” he doesn’t know. They wish him luck and drive on by on their motorbike.
For years and years, I wondered, “Why is Foxy afraid of wolves? Aren’t they just like him?” And that’s kind of the point. We want the chicken in our teeth, but who are we once we get it? Foxy puts his family in danger just so he can get a rush of adrenaline from his kleptomania, and then when he gets it, it’s actually really scary. An integral part of him hinges on how he gave up his wild side for his family, but he doesn’t actually want to give up his subdued life with them, even if he thinks he does. The wilderness seems pretty fun before you read about wolves eating their own young.
In the end, though the wolf is still distant, he reconciles with it, like I have to reconcile with the contradicting part of me that wants to be unrestrained and angry and mean like a bad dog, and the other part of me that wants to be polite when somebody says something stupid. We have to choose if we want to be the wolf or the well-respected man about town. It’s a complicated message for a “kids” movie, and maybe I’m overthinking it, but Anderson makes it work.
The majority of the movie deals with Foxy’s identity crisis, but my personal favorite dive into individuality is through Foxy’s son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, “Rushmore”). His b-plot is all about his envy for his more athletic, popular cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”). As a kind of ugly ten-year-old with perpetual middle child syndrome, his story got me.
That’s the second scene that my siblings and I shut our mouths for:
“Ash,” his mother says. “I know what it’s like to feel … different. We’re all different. Especially him,” she says, pointing to his father. “But there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?”
Sidenote: The scene where Ash silently bonds with Kristofferson as they watch his electric train go round and round his room is ultimate reconciliation, in a way the colonists never knew. There’s nothing that hurts like your lab partner looking at somebody else, and there’s nothing harder than making peace with who they’re looking at. Nobody is as empathetic as a 12-year-old who thinks their dad kind of hates them.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is about the lengths we go to for our family. The characters don’t really know who they are or if they’ll like it once they finally figure it out. They paint thunderstorms over and over, curse too much and spit when they’re mad. It just makes me feel warm at the time of the year when all the leaves are falling down dead.
Kids need to be told that their feelings matter. I remember that I always really liked how the characters say “cuss” in place of any actual swear word; I was raised in a house that wouldn’t even say the word “butt” or “poop,” so swearing made me uncomfortable, especially in children’s movies, which always seemed like the screenwriters pandering to the adults. I’m just trying to say that kids are people, just smaller and a little weirder. We all want to be loved despite our flaws no matter how old we are, so why not watch an honest movie about our insecurities and fears with kids? Even if you want to believe they’re living the idyllic life that your revisionist nostalgia tells you about, kids deal with some heavy shit. They know all the existentialism and loneliness that adults do, only it’s scarier because they might not have a name for it. It makes me think of “The Mill on the Floss,” in which George Eliot wrote, “Childhood has no forebodings; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow.” Everything is so fucking big and scary when you’re a kid. It matters when people acknowledge that, even if it’s only in the image of a black wolf with its paw in the air. This year, I’m thankful that my mom took me to see this movie over ten years ago. Crying in front of her feels just as animalistic as breaking a squab’s jaw with your teeth.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.