Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox: A Wes Anderson Family Film (3/5)

Thanks for participating in the poll about Mr. Fox (see results at right). I still can't figure out how these google polls work, since there have been 29 participants of whom 20 have seen the film (of which 22! liked it) and 5 haven't. But at least I'm sure now that some of you may be interested in this Mr. Fox series at all.

At first glance, Fantastic Mr. Fox contains everything that defines standard Hollywood animation blockbusters:
  • action sequences
  • family themes
  • typecast animals
  • star voices
  • pop songs (that have replaced musical numbers ever since Shrek, at the latest)
  • the hero – Mr. Fox – even has a side-kick.
But then it turns out that with the exception of the action sequences (which have already been part of the original book) all these elements are also part of Wes Anderson’s trademark style. As I think this may be the clue to why Fantastic Mr. Fox feels so different from standard animated features, let’s have a look at Wes Anderson’s approach to film making. As always, there are spoilers galore. 

The films of Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson (b. 1969) was born in Austin, Texas, where he started making films with the Wilson brothers at the age of 25. Two years later, with the help of Hollywood producer James L. Brooks he was able to expand this first short called Bottle Rocket into a feature film of the same name. The story doesn’t really work, e.g. it never becomes quite clear why the middle class protagonists so desperately want to become criminals, but they do and Wes Anderson gives them a lot of dialogue to talk about it in an entertaining way.

Another two years later, his breakthrough came with the high school comedy Rushmore (1998) where he cast Bill Murray as a melancholy loser for the first time. Ever since, Anderson has made ensemble films, with the same people both behind and in front of the camera. His “family” of actors and crew members has grown over the years, but some of them, like Owen Wilson, have been associated with every film he made.

I see him as part of the same generation of American film makers like Sophia Coppola: "auteurs", who are more interested in personal and private stories than political and social statements. Anderson’s movies usually deal with family problems and the protagonists’ own internal blockades. In fact, they are so much self-obsessed that even an antagonist introduced as Zissou’s “nemesis” can not motivate dramatic tension in Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). That the actions of a protagonist are affecting a whole society – like it is the case in Fantastic Mr. Fox – is a novelty. 

Family themes: father-son-conflicts and men who never grow upFather-son-relationships and conflicts are always central to the films’ narrative, especially from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) on. Most often the protagonists were adolescents like Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore or men who have never grown up like Bill Murray’s Blume (or as Olivia Williams puts it: “you’re both little children”), Steve Zissou or the brothers aimlessly travelling on the Darjeeling Limited.

In my opinion, the father-son-conflict between Mr. Fox and Ash is the central addition by writers Noah Baumbach and Anderson that made a simple children’s story interesting enough to hold a feature film. While we could argue that the tensions come from the fact that Mr. Fox himself has never really grown up, the person who seeks the approval of the father figure is actually a child. So it’s much easier to relate to Ash’s problems than if he were a grown man like many of Anderson’s earlier characters were. The brother rivalries from earlier films are played out by cousins here.

Anjelica Huston in The Royal Tenenbaums
In Anderson previous three films, it was always the ex-wife/mother who held the family somewhat together while still being excentric herself, to say the least. But as opposed to the men, she was able to cope with her new situation. It is no co-incidence that all of these slightly odd women have been portrayed by Anjelica Huston: in Tenenbaums she played the mother of three misfits, in Life Aquatic the brains (and ex-wife) behind Steve Zissou and in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) the newly spiritualized mother of three unshepherded brothers.

Now for the first time, Meryl Streep who is more of the warm, motherly type than Huston is playing the role of the down-to-earth woman behind the protagonist and for the first time the lovers are still together. George Clooney’s Mr. Fox himself seems to be a more successful relative of Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum, Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou or Owen Wilson’s Francis Whitman. There are also overtones of earlier roles like Danny Ocean or Ulysses Everett McGill from Oh brother, where art thou?. I’ll adress the acting (both voice direction and animation) in a later post. 

Rigid settingsLike all of them, he is dedicated to some insane plan he’s stubbornly following through although it’s obvious that it is destined to fail anyway. It’s interesting that many of these Anderson anti-heroes are turning their misadventures into plays, books, screenplays or in this case newspaper columns that no one ever reads.

Anderson seems to be more interested in the pacing of individual scenes than the overall arc of a picture. Often, he structures his films like novels using chapters, intertitles and in the case of The Royal Tenenbaums even a narrator.
This book even has a library tag as if to say that the film makers only borrow its story as opposed to owning it.
The Royal Tenenbaums is all about books and owes its literary structure to that fact.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is still structured by chapters.
This way he is also able to introduce a large cast of characters more economically.
Anderson likes to have his large cast of characters all in the same scene (Life Aquatic)...
...which - to that extent - is not very common in animation.
Rushmore has overtones of a stage play, complete with curtain and all which makes sense since Max Fischer is directing stage play versions of New Hollywood movies.

What makes Anderson’s movies so special is the way he stages the individual scenes. His films have been described as “slowed down farce or souped up tragedy” and “art gallery precision misapplied to screwball comedy”. His trademark style of humor derives from great writing and very understated acting with dead on timing in combination with the rigid visual world the characters live in.

Within the narrow confines of overly detailed sets the emotionally crippled characters are hardly able to move let alone grow or change. In addition to the understated acting, he often uses color to emphasize the connection of a character to an overwhelmingly detailed setting.   

Chameleon-like characters
If you look at these two images of Wes Anderson (above), you’ll notice that he likes to wear clothes that are close in tone to each other. In his films he uses the effect of placing characters in front of backgrounds of the same color as their clothes very often.

Do you see the house keeper Pagoda at the left?
Ben Stiller is so unable to grow that he wears the same tracksuit during the whole film (he even wore it as a child).
In the end at his father's funeral, only the color changes, but it's the same kind of tracksuit.
Luke Wilson as his brother who is living in the past as well.
Gene Hackman wears a brown suit outside...
...and takes it off indoors only to reveal a gray suit in a gray environment.
Steve Zissou wearing his pale blue overall is very often photographed against the blue sea, at least that's where he seems to be at home.
Here, he is obviously not at home. We're in the room of the brown man in the center.
Cate Blanchett in her bunk.
Jason Schwartzman in his hotel room.
The transition from suitcase to train furniture is hardly noticeable.
Like Pagoda in the first picture, people working in an environment wear the same colors, here even the same kind of pattern.

Here we have the conductor of the first train...
...and here we have one of another train.
Barbet Schroeder must be the boss of this garage
Mr. Fox in his natural habitat...
...and farmer Bean at home.
If you look closely at these films, you'll be surprised how many more examples there are!

Next: camera setup and central perspective


Roland MacDonald said...

I am really enjoying these posts. Love Wes Anderson's aesthetic. You observations are very interesting

Delfos said...

I love your blog!!

Very, very interesting.

Hueboxx said...

Yes, I agree. Thanks for these posts! You guys should also check out the commentary on Wes here:

happyjimmy said...

One of THE most interesting Blogs on animation I've ever read.

Anonymous said...

Both entertaining and relevant, astonishingly great work !
Kudos from France