Last night I watched Fantastic Mr Fox, directed by Wes Anderson (Twentieth Century Fox, released 2009). It’s based on a story by Roald Dahl, heavily altered by Anderson. Fantastic is a puppet movie, which is fun in itself, and it’s voiced by some great Anderson regulars (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman), with a sprinkle of A-list actors, namely George Clooney and Meryl Streep who voice Mr and Mrs Fox. Most of the film’s characters, in fact, are woodland creatures, like Fox, Badger, and Weasel, who wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.
Anderson’s films are always quirky, and often dark, not unlike movies by the Cohen Brothers. After watching, I began to reflect on the uncanny moments in Fantastic. Take for instance the character of the Lone Wolf, who appears only briefly, and who doesn’t speak English like the other animals. He’s wild, more wild than the rest, walking on all fours without clothes, and he looks dangerous. Mr Fox has a professed phobia of wolves, but he stops to talk to this one, a black, gnarly creature perched on an icy cliff, foreshadowing winter as in the movie it appears to be autumn. Mr Fox tries to communicate, first in English, then in French. There’s no reply, but neither does the wolf depart. Then Fox puts a clenched paw into the air, like the Black Power salute, and Wolf, shortly afterwards, does the same. Then he trots away. “What a beautiful animal,” Fox remarks.
I’ve read different interpretations of this scene, but what’s important about it to me is the way it breaks with the pace of the movie, and the affection and admiration—the awe it professes—for nature and wild things. It’s neither patronizing nor grossly fascinating, like a typical nature show moment, but rather seems more like the conclusion of a Greek myth. A moment of time caught and suspended. A moment imbued with transcendental meaning.
The foxes of Fantastic Mr Fox call themselves “wild,” a word that becomes part of the film’s ethos, but Wolf, by his presence, demonstrates just how domesticated they are. The foxes wear clothes, use utensils, speak English, listen to the radio, carry on business with lawyers and real estate agents; they’re like us. In fact, moments of wildness, like the way the foxes devour their food, are comical in comparison to their otherwise civilized demeanor. If the foxes are our correlates, human animals trying to cope with our domestication, then the Wolf is the loner, the wild man, the outcast (self-elected or otherwise), who refuses to cut his hair and forgets how to stand on two legs. He’s an archetype of the human condition.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Lone Wolf scene being one of soaring emotion, is the scene of Rat’s death, a clear low point in the movie. Rat (Willem Defoe) is working for the humans and gets entangled in Mr Fox’s troubles, whereupon the two fight and Rat is electrocuted and dies. One character says something positive about Rat, as the animals lay his body in a sewer pipe to drift away, but Mr Fox replies, “Yeah, but in the end he’s just another dead rat lying face-down in a sewer.”
And so the film also probes the futility of human existence even as it celebrates its joys.
There is a similar scene in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Touchstone Pictures, 2004), when the Zissou team finally locates the tiger shark they’ve been searching for, and, instead of the expected climactic moment, they sit quietly their submersible and simply watch it swim away.
Both films, Fantastic Mr Fox, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were co-written by Noah Baumbach. I’d like to extend the credit for these moments of brilliance to Baumbach as well.
To me the uncanny is that which communicates on a different frequency than everyday life. It is something which allows us to step outside of our immediate selves and see beyond. Following such moments we have a better understanding of what it means to be human, as a pure being, outside of culture.