The Furry

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Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR FOX is as good as they say. Not only a free-yet-faithful adaptation of the Roald Dahl source, but a very satisfying Wes Anderson film, with all the trademarks (dysfunctional extended families, flat compositions, “offbeat2 comedy, a created world at several removes from our own). And in fact it’s Anderson’s best film for some time. His irritating tendency to undermine any credible emotional development — seen at it’s worst in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, where Bill Murray spends the whole film slowly engaging with his son, reaches an apparently genuine tragic crisis, then pisses it all away for the sake of a cheap joke — is suspended here, maybe because it’s a kids’ film.

I have to admit to some inconsistency here. When I saw the first TOY STORY, what I admired most about it was the way it delivered the emotional requirements of a dramatic story without stopping being funny. For instance, Buzz Lightyear’s traumatic realization that he is, after all, only a toy, is comedically undercut by the TV ad that’s responsible for the revelation. The toy Buzz is pictured jetting through the air, and a caption superimposed beneath reads “Does not fly.” This is both cruelly funny and oddly moving.

On the other hand TOY STORY II departed from this approach with the heartrending song “When She Needed Me,” which is totally serious and utterly affecting, no ironic underlay required. Both techniques are valid.

I think what had been bugging me in Anderson’s films is that they were, at base, always all about emotions, but the filmmaker seemed embarrassed by the idea of resolving emotional knots, committing himself to a view of the behaviour he presented, or allowing the characters to grow and face their difficulties (full disclosure: still haven’t seen THE DARJEELING LTD). The very real problem to be faced by the maker of comedy-drama being that characters are funny when they have blind spots and stubborn areas where they cannot adapt to circumstance — they insist on being themselves at the very times they should change. And that change, very welcome in a drama, kills the laughter. So there typically is a problem to solve — some comedies successfully do without any character arc, generating laughs from the inflexibility of a character, but such films must be about something other than emotions — there must be plot. And Anderson’s stories tend to be character-driven, so there’s a requirement to deliver some kind of redemptive change or realisation, but can that be made funny? Well, if it happens late enough in the story, maybe it doesn’t have to be funny…

George Clooney is a magnificent Mr Fox, capitalizing on that air of self-satisfaction that can be his undoing in buddy fluff like the OCEAN’S films. We expect George Clooney to be glad he’s George Clooney, anything less would be ungrateful and strange, but he has to modulate away from smugness. Here, Mr Fox’s total self-belief and amoral opportunism are the very character flaws that are addressed in the adventure, so Clooney’s casting is a triump, using to the full his skills as light comedian, even if he’s apparently present only as a voice (we know that’s really him under the fur, amid the stuffing, within the puppet armature, somewhere in there). And pairing him romantically with Meryl Streep is delightful, and the kind of thing which, sadly, might be deemed impossible in a live-action film.

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I love the way the long-shots make everything look like crap toys, too. Anderson’s Keatonesque flatness is finally used to serve up visual gags, as it always should’ve been, and his penchant for designing alternative universes is taken to a new extreme in a film where even the landscapes are unreal.

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If some of these stills have the quality of roadkill taxidermy, it’s because they lack the alchemy of animation and voice-work. The cast, featuring several of Anderson’s usual gang (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) underplay in the usual Anderson manner, creating a feeling quite atypical to the world of the animated film, and it all works marvelously. And Michael Gambon, as the No. 1 villainous human, gets to apply his characterisation from THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER to a puppet seemingly modeled on Rupert Murdoch (with a wife who looks not unlike Camilla Parker-Bowles).

Now, since there’s no real way to type the finger-point, whistle and click-click which is Mr. Fox’s trademark, you’ll just have to use your imaginations.

27 Responses to “The Furry”

  1. This must be the first real instance of an auteur film-maker making an animation film. We’ve had animators who are auteurs(Chuck Jones, Tex Avery) and auteurs who started as animators(Tashlin) but never one who started as one making animation. I really want to see this movie.

    I must admit that the tone of undercutting emotions in Anderson’s films was one reason why I didn’t latch on to his movies at first. I thought they were a little too cute and self-satisfied. But oddly the film that made the change for me was The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It has a very animated cartoon look and the characters seem to be only possible in a movie but they somehow become very real. And the poignancy of this lonely guy played by Zissou who accumulates all these people and in the end picks a little girl to start all over again is quite touching. I revisited all his films after that and now like him a lot. My favourite is his first, Bottle Rocket which is a really amazing piece of work.

    I also love the way he makes use of certain props and spaces in his film like the cupboard with the boardgames in The Royal Tenenbaums.

  2. I always liked the askew worlds, and got into the profoundly flawed characters, but without wanting him to get sentimental, I did want to be sure his characters had some emotional depth. It seems they do, or they can.

    I guess some would say Zemeckis is an auteur who has gone in for a kind of animation of late — with lamentable results, I’d say. He seems to illustrate the pitfalls of getting into animation without having any feel for it, whereas Anderson has found a style and worked with artists who can breath life into the characters. Those motion-capture zomboids in A Christmas Carol just look dead-eyed and horrible.

  3. Well, I’m exhausted from defending Zemeckis, whose BEOWULF is among my recent favorites, elsewhere, so I don’t have the energy to get goimg again, but there are other auteurs who’ve experimented with animation: the Farrelly brothers made OSMOSIS JONES and Rob Zombie made THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO. Personal affection may vary (I think the Farrellys are exemplary American artists and Zombie, crude as he is, shows promise of a distinctive style), but that wasn’t the question. Then there are filmmakers whose works are so thoroughly digitally composed that they nearly qualify as animated: Lucas (STAR WARS EPISODES 2 and 3), Fincher (ZODIAC, BENJAMIN BUTTON), Rodriguez (SIN CITY), and the Wachowski brothers (SPEED RACER). Some lament, but I do not, especially since most of these films are among the most invigorating features in recent years.

    Cairns, DARJEELING is a very strong film that not only pays respect to grief, but grief is, in fact, its engine. Check it out!

  4. Lucas’ Star Wars prequels are insults to cinema, animation, digital special effects, in that order. The same goes with Robert Rodriquez. For me an auteur is a film-maker of some distinction, it’s like a Samurai clan. Just because those films look like Lucas or Rodriquez films doesn’t qualify them at all.

    If digital composition qualifies as animation than we must include the best use of digital special effects in the 21st Century, directed by a great auteur – L’Anglaise et le Duc by Eric Rohmer. That film re-created revolutionary Paris by inserting characters into digital paintings. Rohmer waited for years to make this film because he wanted the technology to be made to support the film. He did what George Lucas claimed to do and way better. That said the characters of that film are too full of flesh and blood, too human to qualify as animation. Even if they are dappled like figures in a painting.

  5. I think it’s possible to like Rohmer and Lucas! However, framing the question of auteur qualification in terms of (feudal) class and clan is rather unintentionally apt, and one big reason I find the so-called cinephile community so exhausting.

  6. Well Edgar G. Ulmer and Fuller are auteurs for me and Eric Rohmer’s film is considerably more low budget than Lucas or for that matter the budgets of Farrelly brothers or the Wachowski brothers. I mean elite in the sense that not anyone with somewhat consistent qualities makes the cut. Wes Anderson makes it even if he is fairly young. He has managed to survive and develop as a film-maker without having to sell out.

    The samurai metaphor was simply that I watched Kobayashi’s SEPPUKU(International title HARAKIRI, why? I don’t know!) again yesterday. Really stunning stuff.

  7. Seppuku was retitled for the somewhat lamebrained but commercially sensible reason that Harakiri is a better-known (though possible incorrect) term for ritual suicide than Seppuku. It’s an astonishing film.

    I’m all for embracing a wide range of filmmakers of different backgrounds and intentions. All the guys Jaime cites certainly are distinctive and individual and qualify as auteurs based on valid authorship claims — they all write as well as direct.

    I went into my problems with Beowulf in an early post here, and I doubt I’ll be seeing A Christmas Carol. The sensation of 3D snowflakes tickling my nose will be delightful, everything in back of them will be like nails down a blackboard. I’ve seen too many versions anyway, and Beowulf already looked like a bunch of greetings cards strung together as a flipbook. My basic problem is that Zemeckis has found a way to kill all the expressiveness of live actors, while avoiding any of the expressiveness of animation.

    In fact, the motion control is so rigidly adhered to that I’d hesitate to call the films animated — the dragons etc are animated, the people are just paintboxed to hell. The big fellow in Jackson’s King Kong is genuine animation, built over a motion-capture performance. We get the benefit of both.

    And I don’t count those films that use masses of compositing etc as animation, although it’s a perfectly valid form. Since the word animation refers to “bringing to life” an all-animated film ought to involve all-animated characters.

  8. Yeah. One Froggy Evening is really about that. There’s no spoken dialogue, the humans are drawn in a generic flat style and the frog is one dimensional in the presence of an audience but the moment it’s a private world, the frog bursts into life spectacularly, in full song and dance mode. Spielberg calls it the most perfect cartoon of all time.

    I greatly prefer the look of traditional 2D animation over 3D, some exceptions like Ratatouille aside. The 90s Disney films may not be great as works of cinema, but even stuff like Aladdin(which is actually a remake of The Thief of Bagdad) has really striking visual moments with the use of colours. Very expressive at times. Much more so than 3D stuff today. Real shame that style is gone out.

  9. Disney are returning to 2D, I believe. They’ll be making traditional 2D films alongside the 3D ones.

    The “look” of 3D is actually pretty adaptable, and we’re starting to see the different stylistic approaches possible with it. Parts of Up have an almost Flintstones-like limited palette and painterly quality (The Flinstones was minimally animated but had some lovely backdrops.) I’m excited to see what comes next.

  10. Glad you liked this film, David, it marked a very special occasion in my life, being my two-year-old daughter’s first proper excursion to the cinema (she accompanied us to see On the Town in Paris but it hardly counts as she was only four months old at the time, though she did seem to be paying a great deal of attention and was an exemplary tiny cineaste).

    I felt absurdly moved at times by the privilege of being able to bring her to see such an extraordinarily beautiful film that’s also for kids, but doesn’t insult their intelligence. The film isn’t perfect – I found it too talky, with too few uses of the wonderful tableaux shots you’ve used above for illustration, and both of us became a little tetchy and bored in the closing stretch. But it is Anderson’s best movie for some time, and partially makes up for the resounding awfulness of Darjeeling Ltd, a film that seems designed to play into the hands of Anderson doubters like myself.

    The final dance scene could have gone on for twenty minutes and not bored me, the eccentric beauty of it all was really quite something.

    Interestingly, an interview I found online with Anderson states that his primary visual inspiration was Starewicz’s brilliant Roman de Renard, which, if you haven’t seen it, you really, really need to as soon as possible. It is, in fact, a far better movie, but hats off to Wes for picking just the right cornerstone of inspiration on which to build this lovely film.

  11. That sounds like a fantastic time. My first cinema trip I believe was Dr Dolittle, of which I recall nothing, but apparently I started crying at once because nobody had told me it would be dark.

    The old Odeon cinema had a starscape on its ceiling, and the image of the stars going out, Arthur C Clarke style, is still one I want to use in a movie.

    Starewicz is a genius — I’m amazed Anderson got away with a reference like that — maybe he just kept quiet about it when talking to the studio. Roger Avery made the mistake of citing Svankmajer as an influence when prepping a movie based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and was summarily fired!

  12. My earliest experiences of movies were all on TV. As a kid I loved cartoons and my favourites were Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and MGMs Droopy and Tom and Jerry. I was really shocked to find that they were all made nearly forty years before I was born. “But they look better than the newer stuff!” Even moreso when I found out that they played in movie houses initially and were all made for the big screen. So animation was important initally in guiding the light for my later interest in film history. Those classics are pretty much the only important thing that keeps getting passed to young kids and it’s still fresh and seems incapable of dating.

  13. I’d certainly seen lots of movies on TV before my first cinema trip. I remember being scared by Ray Harryhausen’s mythic monsters, and I’d certainly encountered Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry etc. I’m slightly worried that mainstream TV in Britain and America don’t seem to show these anymore, favouring modern stuff which is inferior and often downright poor.

  14. Christopher Says:

    I remember a time when Hanna Barbara ruled the airwaves and The Flintstones and Top Cat The Bugs Bunny Show were prime time shows..But even at such an early age, I was more fascinated by the Surreal oldies like Flip the Frog or Betty Boop..or the laugh out loud antics of the old Warner’s cartoons…

    Its ok kids..choke!

  15. Warners were my favourites, I think. Didn’t often get a chance to see Tex Avery’s MGM stuff as a kid, but it was always special. I think I admired Tom and Jerry more then than I do now — they’re beautifully made but not too imaginative.

    Hanna Barbera’s TV work always lacked something for me, even before I could appreciate full vs limited animation. As Chuck Jones said, they were basically radio with illustrations. Sadly, his last cartoons fell into the same trap, somewhat.

    There was almost no opportunity to see Boop and Out of the Inkwell etc, and even Popeye was scarce on 70s UK TV. I saw a great BBC documentary as a teen tho, with interviews with Grim Natwick and freeze frames of the subliminal Boop nudity…

  16. What makes the Warner Brothers cartoons so amazing to me is that there’s this energy they possessed, a sort of exhilarating breakneck vitality, that seems unequaled even to this day. That combined with an overall comedic sensibility that no other studio had or could hope to compete with, including Disney. One of these days I hope to try and see most if not all of their output from the most fertile years of the Forties and Fifties, it gives me pleasure to think that there are still gems out there yet to be discovered.

  17. Has anybody seen Chuck Jones’ legendary Phantom Tollbooth? It’s never come out on DVD but you can find in in the usual online places. I saw him speak in Dublin once, and he said that his great ambition was to film James Stephens’ mythic children’s book The Crock of Gold. Never happened, of course, he was sidelined pretty effectively by the industry that he loved.

  18. A few opportunities came Jones’ way very late in life — it was sweet that he got to work with Bugs and the Coyote again — but by then it was too little too late. I saw him talk at Filmhouse, one of the great events of my life. A weird effect of seeing ten or so toons back to back, on the big screen, with an audience — the laughter kept building, until it reached life-threatening proportions. And Jones’s comments in between were pretty droll too.

    The Phantom Tollbooth is rather beautiful. Caught a bit on TV as a kid and was enchanted, waited years to see the whole thing. Pretty trippy. Now, I would love to see The Cricket in Times Square again.

  19. Produced by Jones, directed by Richard Williams. Parts 2-4 also on YouTube.

  20. Jamie said:

    “Cairns, DARJEELING is a very strong film that not only pays respect to grief, but grief is, in fact, its engine. Check it out!”

    Agreed. I’ve been ambivalent about Wes Anderson – I felt a little out of the loop on the cult of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, liked The Royal Tenenbaums but wondered if it was just a collection of (albeit wonderfully) quotable moments and characters. Life Aquatic was OK but I liked it more for the larger scale, the animation and the stunted approach to action sequences (which seems a trademark of Anderson’s films but which got its biggest workout in the sequence of the island invasion to rescue the bond clerk)

    I actually like The Darjeeling Limited the best of all Anderson’s films so far – it is not as quote a minute as Tenenbaums but I don’t think it was intended to be. It is also a film which, while it has a lot of familiar faces (Bill Murray doing a relay race hand off to Adrien Brody at the opening; Natalie Portman in the short opening film; Barbet Schroeder as a taciturn garage mechanic, seemingly doing an impersonation of the Dafoe performance from Life Aquatic!) relegates these characters to the background, rather than ensuring that everyone systematically has their moment to shine as in Aquatic or Tenenbaums.

    This makes Darjeeling much more focused on the brotherly journey, which as Jamie says is driven by grief and how to come to terms with it – looking for answers without much success either through a spiritual journey across India or trying to find their mother again to be told that everything can be alright again.

    I particularly like the way that Angelica Huston is the mother who has abandoned her grown up children when they most needed her. The brothers mature out of their search for outer happiness and need for someone or something else to give them direction but to a knowledge that true fulfilment comes from within – mainly because they don’t easily find fulfilment in their quests. However their mother (with her religious commitment and pilgrimage to ‘do good’ in a poor country) is still trapped in searching for something fulfilling while at the same time ignoring her own children’s problems. She strikes me as similar to Royal Tenenbaum – maybe in a decade or two she will turn up unannounced and try to insert herself back into her children’s lives the way he did.

  21. The first film I was taken to the cinema to see I think was either The Fox and the Hound by my dad or Peter Pan by my mum – I can’t remember which trip came first!

  22. The Disney Peter Pan, of course! :)

  23. >Anderson’s Keatonesque flatness

    As I recall from writing a dissertation on Angelopoulos, Bordwell uses (not sure if he conceived) the term ‘planimetric’ to describe the flat composition you refer to. See Figures Traced in Light, p167-168.

  24. I guess the older Disneys were always getting rereleased — I may have last seen PP around then as a teen, reinvestigating Disney.

    OK, the mixed responses I’ve heard to Darjeeling are so intriguing I’m going to have to watch it soon. Just got an email espousing a friend’s theory that “Your first Wes is always your favourite, and then you like each one a little less, until you get to Darjeeling and STOP.” But it sounds like that’s a far from universally held view.

  25. By the way if you do watch the film watch out for Darjeeling’s equivalent of Aquatic’s bond clerk, who is smart enough to dump his employers in the middle of nowhere before they end up getting him kidnapped like the other guy!

    I think a big complaint about Darjeeling was taking India and making it a backdrop to a insular family tale. I was fine with that though – it is not as if Anderson was making grittily realistic visions of New York or Texas before this! And there feels a clearly delineated split between those Indian characters the brothers interact with on the train (who have British and American accents respectively) and the ‘real’ India passing by or in the centrally important funeral sequence in the middle of the film that the brothers cannot really connect with but is always present in the background. It is both an insular Anderson film (the Indian funeral triggers off a shared flashback to New York for the brothers that includes the Schroeder cameo), but it acknowledges the insularity that makes it less patronising than something like Slumdog Millionaire because it doesn’t pretend to be ‘portraying’ a culture.

    There is also an interesting musical journey to be examined, though my knowledge of Indian film music is somewhat limited – I did note that there is music from films as diverse as Satyajit Ray’s Music Room through to the 2007 Bollywood hit Guru. So it has a similarly eclectic soundtrack to Anderson’s other films.

    While the train as a metaphor for a journey through life concept might seem obvious (if you don’t like that you’ll hate the ’emotional baggage’ literalisation!), I would contend that overt obviousness is an Anderson trait now, like something getting so bad it becomes good again(!)

  26. By which I mean something can be [i]so[/i] obvious that it becomes strange and unique all over again!

  27. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by filmdrblog: Anderson’s best film? http://bit.ly/RHrbp

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