The Drastic Mr. Fox

Snow!

Wes Anderson acknowledged Lasislas Starewicz as a big influence on his approach to animation in THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and ISLE OF DOGS — LE ROMAN DE RENARD (1937) would seem the most obvious connection.

Starewicz’s work might be better known if his sensibility weren’t so unique. It’s not that he saw animation as being other than the children’s medium it seems cursed to be — just that Starewicz was the Great Un-Disney. I just watched his THE INSECTS’ CHRISTMAS, the title of which alone gives you a sense of his itchy, uncomfortable vibe. A miniature wooden Father Christmas comes down off a tree and gives presents to all the beetles in the snow. It’s sheer madness.

The puppets (or actual bugs, perhaps) move quite herky-jerky in that 1914 short, but in RENARD, which took five years to make (with Mrs. Starewicz, Irene as co-director; their daughter, “Nina Star,” acts in some of their films; it was a family concern) everything seems to be on ones. The motion is smooth as velvet, even when the characters rush about — in fact, the Starewiczs sometimes slip into live action so a figure can vanish in a realistic motion blur.

And these mammalian protags and antags are much closer to child-friendly plush toys than the spiky bugs of earlier films. The trouble is, the story is by frickin’ Goethe, and it’s bloody horrible. Mr. Fox is a psychopath. His trickster activities have a lot of Brer Rabbit about them, but they’re all really nasty. The attempts to render things more comical are extraordinarily creepy.

The King of the Animals, a lion, naturally, is constantly hearing complaints about Renard’s depredations. Like, one time, they bring in a bier. On it is a chicken carcass, a victim of this vulpine Mack the Knife. Staggering around the bones is a little anthropomorphized chicklet, crying for its momma. Just horrible. You can’t not be impressed and depressed at the same time.

At one point, in his defense, Mr. Fox conjures up the fantasy image of his wife and child. The Starewiczs dutifully show the baby suckling at the (humanoid) breast of the mother — and her foxtit moves in a lifelike, fleshy way — I’m assuming the cloth is two-thirds full of sawdust or birdseed or something. Because that detail matters. You can’t make a proper kids’ film if the animals’ knockers don’t move right, just ask Ralph Bakshi.

When Renard spins one of his bogus yarns and describes how Heaven can be accessed via the bottom of the village well, we see the afterlife, populated by a choir of disembodied rabbit heads, each equipped with angel wings. Why do the rabbit heads have no bodies? Because farmers cut their heads off?

There’s SO much visual invention here and yet the movie will mostly make you sad and frightened. Still, the monkey lawgiver who peers at us from a screen within a screen is voiced by Claude Dauphin, also the President of the Galaxy in BARBARELLA, again on a screen of his own.

4 Responses to “The Drastic Mr. Fox”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    You must be aware of THE MASCOT, or at least the one-reel except THE DEVIL’S BALL. The latter was a favorite at UCSC film showings in the 70s.

    THE MASCOT begins with a bit of sentimental pathos, then evolves into a nightmare. This appears to be a British release — the only version I’ve ever seen — so one is left to wonder if all those elaborate mouth movements originally went with specific dialogue. While the story gets across as pantomime with a few dubbed lines, can’t help but feel there’s even more going on here.

  2. The Mascot is AKA Le Fetiche, and I think the French version does have good lip-sync, if memory serves.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    Starewicz films were beautifully made: the artist’s “origin story” was similar to that of Willis O’ Brien, and I think it’s reasonable to believe that each may have discovered/invented stop motion animation independently of each other, on different sides of the planet (of course, each may have also been exposed to earlier trickfilms of Georges Méliès and/or J. Stuart Blackton and figured out how to achieve similar effects themselves). The Fetiche character appeared in a number of LS shorts (there’s a dvd of several of them, which i believe is all-inclusive). Much of the blurred action in his animation was accomplished by moving the puppets (often pulling them with wires) while the camera shutter was open. “Younger” stop motion animators like myself and Jim Danforth and Dave Allen and Phil Tippet were wild Starewicz enthusiasts in the seventies.

  4. A key figure is Segundo de Chomon, a Melies imitator who would remake A Trip to the Moon and so on, but so much more. Experimented with colour processes and built the first purpose-built camera dolly in Italy. But he not only did model animation, he combined it with live action! I don’t know when he first did this but his career was only ever about a week behind Melies…

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