What the Cuss?
If what I think is happening is happening, it better not be.
—Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep)
“You know, foxes live in holes for a reason.” Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) does know, even before his wife (Meryl Streep) tells him. And yet, he’s tired of living in a hole. “It makes me feel poor,” he sighs.
Aspiring to more, Mr. Fox decides to move Mrs. Fox and their preteen son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) out of the ground and into a tree. Here, they can look out windows and, on the grass outside, keep a swimming pool. Though he seems pleased with the change, Mrs. Fox is wary, because she knows her husband. Specifically, she knows that he’s so inherently foxish, inclined to mischief and adventure. It’s one reason she loves him, of course, indicated in the first scenes of Fantastic Mr. Fox when they take off together to steal chickens from a local farmer. She’s happy enough to scamper and flip over farm machines en route to the barn, where they proceed to crack the birds’ little necks and gobble them down, bones and all. It’s the last moment that worries her, when Mr. Fox takes note of a gizmo that ‘s sure to be a trap: he can’t help himself, he pulls the cable and boom! they’re inside a cage.
The image resonates, not because they’re going to stay caught—Mr. Fox is far too clever to have that happen—but because, when Mrs. Fox announces in the next moment, “I’m pregnant,” his face freezes. This is exactly how Mr. Fox arrives in the hole, 12 fox years later, as he promises Mrs. Fox, whom he loves dearly, that he’ll give up stealing and settle down. By the time he buys that new home in the tree, he’s got a serious job, sort of, as a newspaper columnist, as well as an office and a best friend who’s a lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray). These two share their worries and hopes, serious thoughts… until in an instant, someone’s said something wrong and suddenly they’re engaged in a fierce contest of cuss words (literally, they spit the word “cuss” back and forth, a nifty device to show the utter silliness of the MPAA’s fixation on words as a measure of age-appropriateness). They’re wild animals, even if they wear suits and sit at desks.
In Wes Anderson’s marvelous expansion of Roald Dahl’s 1970 book, Mr. Fox’s wildness works two ways. In the regular world, where’s he’s got responsibilities and something like a schedule, Mr. Fox’s snarfing and stealing are immature, a stage he must get over. But it is also, more enchantingly, exactly what makes him fantastic, his inability to stay still or resist a very particular sort of temptation. This last is made obvious when he learns the identities of his new neighbors, a trio of arrogant farmers whose businesses are exceedingly profitable. It’s only a mater of time before Mr. Fox and his mostly willing possum buddy Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) begin to sneak out at night in order to filch from these smug humans, or more precisely, in order that Mr. Fox might recover his sense of foxish self.
Things go wrong when the humans decide to fight back, ferociously. They gather together gunmen, bulldozers, and backhoes in order to track down the thieves. At this point, it’s impossible that Mrs. Fox does not find out about the stealing—if she might have looked the other way when her pantry was miraculously filled overnight with turkeys and bottle of hard cider, now, with the noise and disruption and Mr. Fox’s missing tail (shot off by a farmer’s gun-toting minion), she’s got a good idea of what he’s been up to. Disappointed that he’s been lying to her, she’s doubly upset that he’s been including Ash and their visiting silver fox nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) in these late-night exploits.
The tension between Mr. and Mrs. Fox is, on one hand, completely familiar: the woman seeks to domesticate her roving man, while he yearns to express himself, to get out from under the weight of a civilization that restricts him. At the same time, Mr. Fox is grappling with his intricate relationships with Ash and Kristofferson, as they are also grappling with one another, feeling competitive but also in league, crushing on the same classmate, Agnes (Juman Malouf), enchanted by the same train sets and aspiring to the same athletic feats. No small thing to preteens, Kristofferson appears to be gifted at sports, while Ash, much to his dismay—and that of his coach (Owen Wilson)—is not. It helps to be athletic when stealing geese and chickens, as Mr. Fox knows all too well, and so he’s also needing to see past his own expectations in order to value what Ash can bring to the operation.
These intergenerational dilemmas—how to be foxes, to be individuals and also parts of communities—form the complicated heart of Fantastic Mr. Fox. They’re rendered in existential bits of conversation (“Can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in its teeth?”) as well as the film’s terrific stop-motion animation, at once retro-cool and captivating. Their eyes wide and expressive (and in the case of Kylie during his possumy trances, quite whirly), their forms incredibly, engagingly furry, the weasels, rats, and rabbits inhabit a wonderfully realized world. Indeed, much of the movie’s comedy and emotional weight are premised on how it looks, from Mr. Fox’s brown corduroy jackets and bright orange ties, to the hot-wheelsy cars they roar around in, to the yarny flames that spurt out from explosions.
It’s nostalgic and immediate at once, a combination of effects that alludes as well to the foxes’ wrestling with their identities and loyalties. In one moment Mr. Fox thanks Mrs. Fox for fixing him a plate of toast, and in another he’s descended on it, ravaging it with his sharp fox teeth. As he emerges from the 20 seconds of feasting and gnawing, he looks up with a little grunt. He’s satisfied, for the moment, but only just. He wants more.