Fantastic Mr Fox
by Seb Manley
Wes Anderson’s beguiling Fantastic Mr Fox has at its centre about six main characters, a familiar collective of damaged egoists, romantics and amiable wunderkinds who resemble nothing so much as other Anderson characters, tails and independently mobile pinnae notwithstanding. The eponymous hero, informally known as Foxy (voiced by George Clooney), is a charming but flawed husband and father with adequacy issues; his wife, Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep), is an artistic soul trying to keep her family from sliding into dysfunctionality; their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is an insecure, petulant kid whose athletic talent is much bigger in his imagination than it is in reality (see Ash discussing his ‘raw natural talent’ with his coach here); Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), Ash’s cousin, is a peculiarly sad sports star and karate guru; Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) is a spaced-out opossum; and Badger (Bill Murray) is a top-flight attorney with dreams of working as a demolitions expert.
Obviously, these are not characterisations that have a great deal of connection to real-life animals, or even to Roald Dahl’s animal characters, who – as Deborah Ross points out in a negative review here – never got to ride around on motorbikes or write newspaper columns. Fox and many of the animals are good at digging, but they otherwise behave in ways almost exclusively associated (perhaps mistakenly) with humans. In one of the film’s running jokes, Fox repeatedly refers to himself as a ‘wild animal’ in the style of a Manhattan analysand trying to come to terms with his animal nature. ‘Who am I?’ he asks Kylie. ‘I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? … And how can a fox ever be happy without a, a – you’ll forgive the expression – a chicken in its teeth.’
Ross criticises this kind of strong anthropomorphism on the grounds that it is a betrayal of the spirit of the book and its simpler, less forcefully ‘humanised’ characters. I think the film’s animal characterisations might also be found wanting by critics of anthropomorphism itself, a practice that is often seen as a kind of species-wide narcissism, a projection of human emotions and behaviours onto animals that betrays humans’ essential inability to think beyond themselves. Under this view, the film would be guilty, like many other films, of what Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman describe as a ‘provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home’ (1).
But do we really know that humans like to anthropomorphise purely because they are convinced of their own centrality in the universe? Could we here perhaps be guilty of making unfounded claims about our own nature? One alternative hypothesis offered by Daston and Mitman is that anthropomorphism might sometimes express less human arrogance than human desire to genuinely emphasise with the Other. Our anthropomorphisation of animals might be seen as a kind of response to species loneliness: ‘an intense yearning to transcend the confines of self and species, to understand from the inside or even to become an animal’ (2).
This is just a theory, of course, and I wouldn’t want to assume that it’s exactly right. But certainly I think a lot of people will recognise this kind of desire to live outside of themselves in some way, and certainly it seems right to say that many animals in films are appealing because they are, to some extent, Other at the same time as being, to some extent, ‘human’. The foxes of Fantastic Mr Fox are both highly familiar, acting and speaking in ways very similar to human characters in other films, and fascinatingly strange (perhaps particularly so, given the ambivalent attitudes we have historically had towards the fox; for more on this, see Martin Wallen’s book Fox). For one, they have whiskers, pointed teeth and real-looking fur. They are also, like the majority of animated animals, (roughly) to scale, a feature most clearly apparent, obviously, when an animal character occupies the same space as a human one, as in the poignant scene (below) in which a quivering Kristofferson is dangled by his foot by one of his human captors.
It’s hard to think that viewers don’t identify with animal characters of this kind as animals to some extent, on some occasions. Exactly to what extent this identification might be related to the way people form views of animals, I’m unsure, but I think we can at least say that even quite strong anthropomorphism and human empathy with the animal Other are not necessarily incompatible.
1. Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, ‘Introduction’, in Daston and Mitman, Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 4.
2. Daston and Mitman, p. 7.
Ross, Deborah, ‘Animal Caper’, The Spectator, 24 October 2009.
Wallen, Martin, Fox (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).