Animal Stories


By Dyana Herron

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t speak, or hear, a line from a Wes Anderson movie.

My friends and I belong to that group of twenty-something Anderson fans devoted to the look and language of his quirky films, and many a line has made its way into our collective vocabulary.

Any question might be met with the response, “It’s hard to say, Jackson,” (Bottle Rocket). We express our amazement over an event or anecdote, “How interesting, how bizarre!” (The Royal Tenenbaums). To justify an after-work beer, “I wrote a hit play; why can’t I have a little drink to unwind myself?” (Rushmore).

It’s a testament to Anderson’s skill that while these quotations aren’t distinctive or insightful, there’s something about them that rings true for us, that sticks with us.

At Thanksgiving Anderson released Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the book by Roald Dahl. This, hot on the heels of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, caused quite the stir among admirers of these two eccentric directors, and among those who love talking animals.

Both stories explore boundaries—between childhood and adulthood, between being a human and being a beast. Boundaries are crucial to Fantastic Mr. Fox in a literal sense: the plot involves smooth-talking sophisticate Mr. Fox (perfectly voiced by George Clooney) planning and executing, with the assistance of a mild-mannered opossum sidekick, the thefts of three farms owned by the feared Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

Anyone familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre will recognize the characters instantly: Mr. Fox could easily be patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, displaying a selfish recklessness that sometimes overshadows his familial devotion. Or Dignan from Bottle Rocket, coercing his more sensitive friend into a life of crime. Or Steve Zissou, willing to skirt financial ruin and personal humiliation to fulfill a project others don’t understand. Highly capable Mrs. Fox is similar to any of Anjelica Huston’s roles, cousin fox Kristofferson to athletic, preferred son Richie in Tenenbaums, and Kylie the opossum to Pagoda.

But this is to be expected. Anderson links his projects in obvious ways. His small band of favorite actors, inclusion of section titles in a simple yellow font, preference for the slow-motion shot, and understated dialogue make the films seem less like distinct entities and more like chapters in a storybook written and illustrated by one highly imaginative dude.

Because of this, his projects often have the feel of fables. They take place in environments we recognize—a house in a large city, a train, a boat—but that still seem vaguely unreal, and consciously created (this is a prominent theme in Zissou).

It makes sense that in the stop-motion Mr. Fox Anderson would fully embrace conceit. In it he takes a staged setting (every blade of grass, change in light, blink of an eye is a created effect) and infuses it with life. The fur on the animals is real hair, and Mr. Fox’s living area was designed after Anderson spent time at Roald Dahl’s house.

In this perfectly controlled environment, the dramatic tension emerges: what we can’t control about our natures, and how to live in light of that. When a tearful, furious, disappointed Mrs. Fox asks her husband why he returned to a life of risky thievery after promising he had left it all behind, he responds, “Because I am an animal.”

This after an earlier musing, “Why am I 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?”

These moments of inward probing, of self-awareness, are what make this and all of Anderson’s films more than just vehicles for hip wardrobes and a must-own soundtrack. Because even though Mr. Fox is his only script adapted from a children’s book, his characters are often juvenile. They love the idea of adventure, move back in with their parents, neglect their studies for extracurricular activities, and pretend to have cancer to find a place to crash. Eventually they have to grow up, but they want to do so without becoming boring, or bored.

Many of Anderson’s fans are trying to do the same. Now that the traditional hallmarks of adulthood (career, house, spouse, and children) are coming later and later, a new period of life exists for which there is no delineated structure, no script. Maybe this is why my friends and I find comfort in quoting Anderson’s lines, over and over.

When Mr. Fox stands ready to approach his oppressors with a white flag near the end of the film, we mourn. Though his decisions haven’t been prudent, and though his ego has put others in harm’s way, we don’t want him to surrender. We want Anderson to show us, again, that we can win, even with our idiosyncrasies and mistakes. Even with a chicken in our teeth.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.