The fun thing about watching animations is trying to guess which actors and actresses voiced which characters. For my part, I tend to try and not pay so much attention to the people who are involved behind the scenes in animations precisely because of these reasons. Of course, one can’t escape from that fact, and sooner or later (usually as soon as the credits roll up), I would either smile in some sort of smug satisfaction that I got it right (“I knew that was Jason Schwartzman!”) or lie deep in the seat, wondering whether I had lost my film bearings (“Dammit, that was George Clooney? I could’ve sworn it was Mel Gibson.”) It was at such moments that I think that maybe I shouldn’t be so arrogant or so anal about these things.
That, and how similar some actors’s voices can be when you don’t take into account the usual markers we use to identify them.
Like their face.
The aforementioned Mr. Clooney voices Mr. Fox, a foxy little creature who gives up on a life of thievery after his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), told him that she is pregnant with their child. Fast-forward 2 years later (12 fox years to be exact), and they’re in a hole. It’s more than just literal, however, though they do actually live inside a hole. “We’re poor, but we’re happy.” Mr Fox, however, is not satisfied with this, and buys a newer, bigger home at the base of a tree. Unfortunately, they happen to be near three farms owned by three human farmers, Walter Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Nathan Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Franklin Bean (Michael Gambon). Even more unfortunate is the fact that Mr. Fox has now once again decided to go back to his old profession, and starts to steal the farmers’s products. At the same time, his son, Ash (Schwartzman) has to deal with living in his famous father’s shadow, as well as ‘competing’ with his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), who spend some time living with them but ends up outshining Ash in almost every possible department.
Kristofferson, however, is not the only ‘cool’ thing about the film. Despite the fact that it is an adaptation of an English book and set in the English countryside, with not that many by way of modern amenities, you could almost mistake this film as being a period one. Judging by the style of the garments worn by the characters and the design of the locations, it certainly seems to be that way. However, the humour is very modern. Very dry, in fact (“I just want to see a little sunshine.” “But you’re nocturnal, Phil, your eyes barely even open on a good day.”). Come to think of it, it’s quite British in many ways. It’s not so easy to describe, but you’ll get a decent enough sense of it from the trailer below. For the most part, the colours are also very warm, mirroring the standard approach used by many movies to denote a period set in the past.
I didn’t read the book, though I did know that the filmmakers changed a fair amount of the storyline. As a result, there is a very unique Wes Anderson-feel to the story. There is the tendency, for example, to use classic songs from yesteryears, including those by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and the Bobby Fuller Four (the original music are also quite bright and chirpy, and fun to listen to). Furthermore, most of the shots are shot either directly in front or at the side of the characters. A conversation between two characters means that we’re placed directly in the point of view of one character, making it feel as if we’re the ones being talked to; if the dialogue shifts, the point of view changes accordingly. It’s nothing new, of course, but it is still a technique that is not all that common in most of the films I’ve seen. There are even moments when they actually seem to be addressing as the audience members. I was caught out with Ash’s “Do you think I’m an athlete?” question. Having appeared almost from nowhere, it took a few moments to realise that he’s actually talking to his father with his back turned to him. It’s the little moments like this that makes for a refreshing change.
From this refreshing change comes a refreshing reaslisation: Wes Anderson does not shoot depths, he shoots entire situations. Let me explain. Most films (and filmmakers) I know would not consider employing this method. They usually would have the camera positioned not directly in front of the character’s face, but slightly to the right. This means that Mr. Fox, for example, wouldn’t look like he’s addressing us, but addressing Mrs. Fox instead. Everything will be a little bit more three-dimensional, and it gives more opportunities for more depth and shadow, amongst other things. It also helps to establish a link between the two or three characters in the scene. For example, Mr. Fox would be facing towards the left of the screen as he talks. A reaction shot of Mrs. Fox, however, would have her facing to the right. We would see this a lot in many TV dramas and film, and the line established between the two (their eye contact) is known as “the line”, and one that most people would are not conventionally advised “to cross”, since that would disrupt the continuity. It’s one of the rules, apparently, of filmmaking.
I say ‘apparently’, because in this film, and in many of Wes Andersons’s films that I recall (including ‘Darjeeling Limited’, come to think of it), this is not the rule but the exception. Many a time a camera would be placed right smack in the front of the proceedings. The characters would either be facing the camera directly or they would be facing each other in a profile shot. In fact, the actors are blocked (positioned) almost as if they’re in a theatre production. To reveal something new, new characters would walk in and out, and once in a while, the camera would merely dolly rather than pan. The difference is that instead of the camera merely spinning on its axis on the tripod, it would use the track to go forwards or backwards, left or right. You’d see all of this in sequence when Mr. Fox and his family moves into their new home, and is often used for comedic effect. As such, you’d get a bigger and more complete idea of the whole scene, or the whole situation (this is what I mean when he shoots for situations, rather than depths). I wonder whether Wes Anderson himself had any theatre background that would help to explain this a little more. Quizzed a little further, perhaps he might just say that this is something that he likes. More power to him, because it is something that I quite like as well, and might employ in my own films in the future. It seems a little strange, in a way, that it takes an animated film (a stop-motion one at that, a technique first created and refined in the late 19th and early 20th century, to discuss this, but that’s what it is. I think it might be fun to do a little research and write an article on Mr. Wes Anderson himself, don’t you?
If I do that, I may well come across a number of the same actors who are Anderson regulars. Once again, I didn’t guess that Bill Murray is Badger, Mr. Fox’s lawyer. The same goes for Willem Dafoe, who voices Rat, even though I had just seen him in ‘Antichrist’. Owen Wilson is a little insignificant in the small amount of screen time he’s given as Coach Skip (though his name is one of those up in bold, ahead of that of Michael Gambon).
In conclusion, this film gave me more food for thought than I expected. I did think that I’d be in for a good time, at least, and I wasn’t proven wrong, thanks in large parts to the sharp dialogue and humour. I suspect that it might be something of a home run for fans of the book as well, but you certainly won’t need to have read the book beforehand to enjoy the film either. Perhaps it maintained a lot of the Dahl spirit, but it is certainly infused with the Anderson spirit.
Fantastic, in fact.
One thing Fikri did get right is the fact that 20th Century Fox backed this film. Of course, it was revealed within the opening seconds, but still…wouldn’t feel right if Universal did it, would it?