Roald Dahl’s children’s books are full of barely submerged misogyny, lust and violence. The new film version of Fantastic Mr Fox is an ideal introduction to this fabulous, cruel world…
Filmed using stop-motion techniques, Fantastic Mr Fox looks beautiful: a vivid appliqué of pose-able figures threaded into sets that any kidult would love to play with. It’s a relief to experience a children’s film that has a genuine quiddity after all that remorselessly perfect computer-generated imagery. As for the players, I wonder whether George Clooney (Mr Fox) and Meryl Streep (Mrs Fox) have ever generated more sexual chemistry than they do with these husky, sassy voiceovers.
I took my eight-year-old to the screening. He’s the youngest of our cubs, and the last one available with whom to burrow about in Dahl-world. His remark on the adaptation was telling: “I like it when they do the whole story properly, but then they put in anything else they feel like.” Luckily, the “anything else they feel like” is in this case cleverly scripted by Noah Baumbach (of The Squid and the Whale) and director Wes Anderson. I had no problem with all the animal characters being snappy late 1950s American types, not unlike the advertising men and their wives in Mad Men; nor did I mind the introduction of a yoga-practising, karate-kicking fox nephew, with whom Fox Jr has a troubled rivalry. Nor, indeed, did I suspect any sinister subversion of the special relationship in Anderson choosing a fine trio of British character actors for the loathsome farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean (the last giving Michael Gambon an opportunity to smoke heavily on screen, albeit in puppet form). After all, while it’s a great bedtime book, Fantastic Mr Fox would be slim pickings for a feature had a flickknife-toting rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe) not been interpolated.
All that’s fine, and it’s refreshing also that Anderson doesn’t play up the convenient truth of environmental damage by humans, but rather subverts it by making this the cause – as it indeed is – of an advantageous vulpine incursion into the built environment. However, the recasting of the Foxes’ marriage as one of near-equality, with Fox himself not so much a wild animal as a grandiose chicken-snatching addict, and Mrs Fox scratching against her own co-dependency, was certainly not true to the spirit of the book. For Dahl, Mr Fox was the fantastic one – he didn’t need any lousy vixen to show him the way to dig.