Two short films cast a long shadow over the history of cinema. The first is the famous 1895 Lumière Brothers’ “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,” a mere fifty seconds of documentary footage. Through a static, single shot, we watch a train approaching from a distance, chugging from the center-right of the frame until the engine blows past us to the left, slowing down to an eventual stop. The final seconds depict the movement of the crowd, disembarking, boarding, standing around—the details and bodies of real life. That realism, mediated through what would become standard compositional techniques, has made the film so famous. A disputed legend has it that when the film was first screened, the audience reacted in terror, afraid that the oncoming train was going to run them over.
Contrast the Lumières’ arriving train with travel of a different kind, Georges Méliès’s 1902 “Le Voyage dans la lune.” A science fiction gem, the picture attempts to take us to another world, one crafted from extremely basic special effects, sets, and impossible physics. The most famous of its scenes comes from a surrealist’s notebook, an image of a bullet-shaped rocket ship landing in the eye of the man on the moon. Strange flora and fauna, exploding spacemen, stars with faces—“Le Voyage” is the stuff of dreams. Cinematic techniques allowed Méliès to achieve this fantasy; jump cuts, the film teaches us, can make magic.
One can easily read these two films as representative opposites in cinematic dialectics. As we watch the train approaching the station, we are reminded that the most elusive details of experience, at least as perceived through our eyes (and, with the advent of talkies, our ears), can be captured by film. Cinema is one of the most mimetic of arts, what the late, great Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky has called “sculpting in time.”1 Despite that phenomenological realism, those sculptures can be utterly fantastical, unlike anything we would ever in fact experience in this world. The movies can recreate not simply our real life but our dream life, a power which the age of digital effects has raised to the highest degree. Cinema comes to life somewhere between these two poles, a child of magic and materiality.
Wes Anderson has always sought to synthesize this dialectic, and the tension produced by that effort makes him an important director. The objects of Anderson’s world are both real and reanimated (sometimes literally), emanating an aura that they do not possess in our everyday lives. Some critics have found this effort only solipsistic or childish, as did Christian Lorentzen in his review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2005), claiming that all of Anderson’s films “share one overriding theme: the fundamentally disappointing quality of adulthood.”2 This regressive anxiety, for Lorentzen, explained the decision to animate Zissou’s encounters with the film’s fictionalized ocean life. After all, if the adult world is disappointing, there is always the cartoons.
However, viewing Anderson’s work as childish fantasy doesn’t take into account his very grown-up commitment to depicting our often tragic experiences and inevitable losses. The Life Aquatic, after all, was shot on location at sea, conveying a physical presence reminiscent of the Lumières’ train. Similarly, the film’s moments of understated violence are both fact and glimmer, somewhere between embedded reporting and a John Wayne picture. To accuse Anderson’s films of pure fantasy misses his much more interesting struggle between animation and death.
Where the cartoons of The Life Aquatic pressed the fantastical more than any of his previous work, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) walked much more difficult, and controversial, ground. A travelogue of wealthy Westerners seeking spiritual solace in the more “authentic” East, the story could easily be accused of making India a stage for the personal anxieties of the three protagonists, still mourning the death of their father. Eschewing animation, Darjeeling Limited opted for the exotic. Anderson’s signature eye for detail and composition rendered that world beautifully, but insufficiently, too often leaving it a backdrop, not a real place.3 At times the seductions of cinema may overwhelm its potential for truth.
Anderson’s latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, cuts through the dialectic of cinema by presenting us with a fantasy that is almost entirely materialized. He couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate source in Roald Dahl, whose books for children marry the marvelous with the beastly. In Dahl’s fiction, protagonists suffer horribly; bodies ooze, boil, and explode; and the world is as deadly as it is enticing. Dahl’s books have been adapted many times to film (perhaps most famously in Gene Wilder’s psychedelic interpretation of Willy Wonka), but few of those adaptations have received the aesthetic attention of a director like Anderson.4
Fantastic Mr. Fox ups the ante in Anderson’s game. The beauty of stop motion animation, in which Dahl’s tale is rendered, is that it is deliberately artificial but entirely physical. The film we are watching is nothing but objects, in this case dolls, tiny automobiles, and even tinier guns and bottles of cider, all of which come alive through the moving pictures. Unlike his previous two films, in which Anderson turns his camera upon an ostensible version of our world, with stop motion he is able to create an entirely new reality, the pure fantasy of the voyage to the moon. And yet this world is still, unshakably, ours, taking up space in a material way that comes across beautifully through the camera. The effect is like watching an obsessively detailed miniature railroad model, one which revels in its own artificiality even as it is seeking to be faithful to some original. Anderson wryly reminds us of this when he cuts from two young foxes watching a train set in their room to the wider, nighttime world outside, through which rumbles a passing train. A mise en abyme, this set within the set does not belie postmodern irony but, instead, reminds us that we are in a world of pure imagination, created one frame at a time.
Dahl’s original story pits the crafty “animal” intelligence of those living on the margins against the greedy and hilariously grotesque machines of the powerful. “Animal” in a very peculiar sense, as the Foxes and the Badgers are decidedly tweedy gentlefolk, with good manners and formal eloquence.5 They may steal from the neighboring farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, but they only do so to keep themselves alive, and, besides, the farmers have more than enough surplus to share.
Anderson adds to this mix a backstory, a midlife crisis, a youthful rivalry, and Wal-mart. Mr. Fox (wittily voiced by George Clooney), having made a vow to his wife (Meryl Streep) that he would give up the risky profession of poultry stealing, has settled into the undistinguished but stable lifestyle of a newspaper columnist. Tired of his modest fox hole, Mr. Fox moves his wife and son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), to a classier hollow tree, a home which overlooks the large farms owned by the three Bs. They are soon joined by a nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), whose many skills provoke the ire of the skinny and talentless Ash, one major subplot in the film.
As nice as the new dwelling may be, foxes, Mrs. Fox reminds her husband, live in holes. Fox’s dissatisfaction with his life is symptomatic of a larger identity crisis, one which both prompts him to disavow his foxiness as well as use it as an excuse for deception. Convinced that a fox should be stealing, not writing columns, Fox succumbs to the tempting proximity of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean’s respective establishments, despite his promise to his wife.
Predictably, no good can come from following one’s instincts. Anderson’s interpretation of the three farmers is perfectly in step with Dahl’s story, and their anger over Fox’s raids leads them to increasingly elaborate attempts on his life. They resort to digging up most of the countryside with heavy equipment, forcing the entire animal community–Badgers, Rabbits, Moles, Beavers, Mice, and Weasels–into underground burrows. Trapped by human technology, the animals assume that they are going to starve to death, a fate brought upon them by Fox’s irrepressible urges. But he isn’t called “fantastic” for nothing. Through some carefully planned tunneling organized by Mr. Fox, the animals are able to beat the farmers at their own game. They feast properly on Boggis’s chickens, Bunce’s geese, and Bean’s cider, while the farmers sit in the rain, guns in hand, waiting for Mr. Fox to eventually make a dash for it.
Dahl’s story ends at this point, the animals triumphant and defiant, choosing to found a new community underground, while the farmers are defeated without even realizing it. A certain nostalgia colors this conclusion, a throwback to a more wholesome rural England, albeit one displaced into tunnels and caves. The machines of industrial agriculture may threaten, forcing the denizens of the countryside to adapt, but persevere they will, retaining the values of village, family, hospitality, and slow food, qualities that Boggis, Bunce, and Bean cannot appreciate. One could imagine Beatrix Potter drawing a similar conclusion, though perhaps not with Dahl’s eye for the absurd or his subtle ironies.
There are clearly many interpretive layers to this relatively simple story. Although Dahl appears to pit the natural, agrarian past against the crude, mechanized present, his animals are more human, and humane, than the farmers. Indeed, with the exception of their digging abilities and their particular tastes in food, the animals have largely left their species character behind. Consequently, the story is far from romantic: it isn’t the animal that wins after all, but a particularly idealized version of the human which is able to resist the dehumanizing effects of an industrial contemporary world.
Anderson, highly attuned to the human/animal irony of Dahl’s tale, exploits it even further and uses it as a plot device to extend the original narrative. Mr. Fox may have all the characteristics of the bourgeoisie, including his own column, a new house, and a tailor, but he still devours his food ferociously, growls and barks at his lawyer, and admits that he is a “wild animal.” Still, the wildness is only residual, or, more accurately, present but never complete. Toward the end of Anderson’s adaptation, Fox briefly encounters a truly untamed beast, lacking clothing or human language. This creature from another (and, the film suggests, shrinking) world demonstrates the undeniable gap in Fox’s own consciousness. He may share a rapport with the wilderness, but it is no longer his natural habitat. Similarly, the human world of coffee spoons and bread pudding is constantly trying to kill him. A Fox in a suit, it would seem, can never go home again.
It is tempting to interpret Fox’s double consciousness as another example of the class anxiety coloring Anderson’s work,6 a concern which returns us to the fantastic and the real potential of cinema. One can trace a consistent aesthetic and thematic progression from Bottle Rocket (1996) through Rushmore (1998) to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Anderson’s first film follows wannabe crooks from a middle-class Midwest, his second depicts a poor but educated young playwright who befriends a wealthy industrialist, and the third focuses on the decadent quirks of a onetime elite family. As the class focus shifts across the three works, the movies become increasingly formalistic and aestheticized, as if the world of the well-to-do can only show up in an absurd Technicolor. The fractures produced by this transformation from poverty to wealth, reality to fantasy, are best embodied in Max Fischer, the barber’s son who makes it to the prestigious Rushmore academy on the strength of his playwriting. When Max flunks out and is forced to return to public school, he keeps his preppy blazer and cultivated mannerisms.7 Acutely aware of both worlds, Max is denied full entry into either. The only real bridge he is able to construct between these realities is, suggestively, his very film-like plays.
Can Fox be read as another Max Fischer, the animal/human dialectic a projected fantasy of class (im)mobility? Anderson’s new ending to the story doesn’t provide an easy answer. The animals eventually take refuge in the sewer, a far cry from Dahl’s underground British village. Edwardian lushness and its animated objects have become urban poverty, complete with hunger, postindustrial interiors, and illness. Undaunted, Mr. Fox once again saves the day by discovering a secret route to a giant grocery store. The movie ends with the Foxes celebrating, not with the wholesomeness of farm fresh turkeys and hard cider, but with pre-packaged giblets and juice boxes, dancing under the garish fluorescent light of the Wal-mart future.
Anderson’s love of ships, Victorian architecture, classic automobiles, and Indian trains makes Boggis, Bunce, and Bean International Supermarket a surprising location to end the film. Indeed, the nearest precedent might be one of the last shots in Bottle Rocket, when Owen Wilson’s character marches off into the gray landscape of a prison yard. The world of upper-class objects, with patina and history and physical beauty, has been replaced with mass cultural simulacra, the cheap and often unhappy imitations which do not as readily capture our imaginations or the tender gaze of a camera. The contemporary supercenter is not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.
Or is it? In Fox’s final speech, he offers a toast celebrating the joys of the artificial. Bean’s famous hybridized apples may look fake, he admits, “But at least they’ve got stars on them.” And indeed they do. All the more reason for the Foxes to raise their juice boxes in honor of their “survival.” In a ravaged world, chased from their holes and their trees, animals, like human beings, adapt. Dahl’s world of country manners and home cooking may be gone, or, as many critics contend, increasingly available at the farmer’s markets of the wealthy few. The rest of us will survive, thanks to the inexpensive goods of the industrial supply chain. Anderson here seems to mark the ironic reversal of our situation, in which synthetic, artificially animated things inevitably usurp a natural past. Perhaps the reality of contemporary life is fantasy, but at least it is a fantasy wherein we can survive.
And there is something fantastic about that, like cinema itself. The train and the trip to the moon are ultimately inseparable, and they always have been. Both are equally magical, equally realistic. Anderson’s wit is to show us that a children’s story, far from affording a retreat from the adult world, illuminates it. Movies sculpt in time, and our time, for better or worse, is already, inescapably, covered in make-believe stars.
1. Tarkovsky used the phrase as the title for his fine book on cinema, Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989).
2. Christian Lorentzen, “Captain Neato: Wes Anderson and the Problem with Hipsters; Or, What Happens When a Generation Refuses to Grow Up,” n+1, Film, April 23, 2010, http://nplusonemag.com/captain-neato.
3. Not that one cannot effectively use a mere background to stage the real, as does Jørgen Leth in one of his short films made for the documentary The Five Obstructions (2003).
4. See Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox (New York, NY: Puffin Books,  2007).
5. Donald Chaffin’s illustrations to the first edition of the book (published in 1970) strongly convey this classic English countryside aesthetic and directly influenced Anderson’s visual interpretation.
6. Lorentzen, by reading Anderson as the hipster auteur, appears divided on this point, claiming that for the cool kids of Brooklyn, “Class anxiety isn’t hip.” While not fully attributing this same posture to Anderson himself, Lorentzen effectively ignores the fact that Anderson’s films are acutely concerned with matters of class, thus resisting whatever supposed hipsterness par excellence the critic attributes to the director.
7. An act of class defiance with origins in Anderson’s own life; see Richard Brody, “Wild, Wild Wes,” New Yorker, November 2, 2009, 48.