Someone once said the test of a good children’s film was how viewable it is to adults. There is something to be said for a film which captures the imagination of both someone small and someone who has seen a bit more of the world. Children’s films, or rather, family films must strike a balance, tightrope walking along a periphery of awareness and lack thereof to ensure ultimate enjoyment for both parties. A. O. Scott, in his review of 2009’s Where The Wild Things Are hit the nail on the head when he warned against overprotection when it comes to children’s stories; “young viewers may see a premonition of what lies ahead as well as a sympathetic rendering of what they already know; whereas adults may find pleasure in recalling old hurts and relief that they are not at the mercy of them”. One film which was at the centre of this conversation of crossing this carefully placed boundary was 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Taking a colourful and zany spin on the story of Roald Dahl’s opportunistic fox, Wes Anderson’s film sparked a deeper conversation for the character; that of existentialism. But prior to an arena where animations could explore themes which threatened its youngest viewers’ innocence, they had to appeal to an older audience to be viewed critically in the first place. Thus, before animated wild animals could question their life’s purpose, they had to reach liberty. As a precursor to Anderson’s stop motion, a film which appealed to all audiences and told of this liberation was Aardman’s Chicken Run (2002).
What started as a parody to The Great Escape could not remain one for too long. Chicken Run was born from Nick Park and Peter Lord’s Bristol based indie start-up studio and home to Wallace and Gromit. The lifespan of this cheese-loving man and his silent but savvy dog leapt from graduate student project to oscar winning, later landing a feature length film is in a true story of the unexpected. In the late 1990s, the short films had many famous fans, amongst them Steven Spielberg. After a chance meeting, Park and Lord found themselves sitting opposite the director in a chicken restaurant in LA, pitching an idea for a new film. Sitting in that restaurant, the thought that a chicken farm could organise against its farmers was a humorous one. Once matched with the comedy in the final script which moved from slapstick to one-liners and cultural witticisms, it became less of a thought and more of a fleshed-out gimmick.
The final cut of Chicken Run is a masterclass of reference; the stunts are remakes of the likes of Indiana Jones, with a crocheted bonnet in place of a sable fedora. Ginger (Julia Sawalha) plays cool homage to Steve McQueen’s Great Escape character Captain Hilts with Rocky’s (Mel Gibson) over-the-fence tricycle jump mirroring the motorcycle stunt from the 1963 war film. When it comes to envisioning a spoof, such as Airplane or Hot Shots, the trick is sincerity in the face of stupidity. If the result is to make a mockery as a means of tribute to the inspiration, Chicken Run falls short; it has too much heart to be doomed to be nothing more than a laughing matter. With the inclusion of wartime spirit and a story of an underdog overcoming tyranny, the feats faced by these farmyard chickens stop being singularly ridiculous. If parody no longer works as a descriptor, the word that could be used in its place is comic pastiche. Chicken Run is undeniably a comedy but one that laughs with its characters rather than at them, it takes their woes seriously and pokes gentle fun amidst a threat of being condemned to pastry.
One of the tools for this story telling is John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams’ collaborative soundtracking. The international meeting with Rocky, the American rooster in an English setting allows a spanning of transatlantic influences. There are nods to the obvious nods to The Great Escape (“Opening Escape”) and Star Wars’ “Imperial March” (“Into The Pie Machine”) as well as Jaws (“Babs’ Big Break”) and the swing of the La Dolce Vita theme (“Rats!”). “Cocktails and Flighty Thoughts” has an early rendition of a Pirates of the Caribbean theme and the inclusion of the late-1950s Big Joe Turner and Dion songs mark the context of the story in a definite post-war timeframe.
The film ends with the age old question of “which came first; the chicken or the egg?” when rats Nick (Timothy Spall) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels) propose the idea of setting up their own chicken farm. There is a cyclical irony to this, not only in the question itself but in the sense that it is the very existence of chicken farms that allowed this film’s motivation to exist; for what is freedom without the threat of losing it? Chicken Run’s philosophical questions probe what it means to be free, looking at it from an individual standpoint – Rocky’s freedom means to not be tied to anything – and that of a collective – Ginger’s freedom is ensuring all those she loves are out of harm’s way. There is a pointed disparity between Ginger’s grim “always tell the truth” approach to leadership versus Rocky’s glossy “never say die” that critiques dishonest authority. The slippery lie which Rocky uses to cheat Nick and Fetcher out of payment not only epitomises Rocky’s hubris but also the chinks in the armour of the promise of the American dream.
In Chicken Run and Fantastic Mr Fox, the roles of certain animals are similar, the obvious exception being chickens who are merely dinner food in the world of Mr Fox (George Clooney). In both films rats play a morally ambiguous role. Chicken Run’s Nick and Fetcher use their business of crafty supplies to acquire chicken eggs. They are opportunistic but relatively harmless against the larger villains of Mr and Mrs Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson). On the other hand, Rat (Willem Dafoe) in Fantastic Mr Fox plays a more sinisterly grey character. Acting as a passive bodyguard for Mr Bean’s (Michael Gambon) apple cider, Rat neither aids nor hinders Mr Fox’s raid of the farm’s supplies. Unlike the unity the Chicken Run rats have with their fowl counterparts or the community spirit that arises in the woodland residents following the demolition of their surface homes, Rat subscribes to the role that benefits him best. He lies between domestication and animal nature and thus, within this film, toes the line between bad and good.
Wes Anderson’s take on Fantastic Mr Fox is one that is definitely more existential than Roald Dahl’s novel. If Chicken Run grapples with the strive for freedom, Fantastic Mr Fox concerns itself with the ennui that can be found there. Mr Fox’s need to be deemed fantastic is the result of his own crisis of identity; what does it mean to be a wild animal? It is Mr Fox’s navigation of this question which leads to the conflict within the film. He acts selfishly as he secretly takes up nighttime raids of the local farms. The results of his actions include the retaliation of the farmers, the kidnapping of his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), the demolition of an entire community of woodland housing and, to a lesser extent, neglect of his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). The paralleling subplot of Ash’s own identity crisis as he struggles to impress his ambitious but emotionally absent father drives the plot of the second and third acts of the film.
As in Chicken Run, the appearance of the outsider in Fantastic Mr Fox acts as a catalyst for conflict. Where Kristofferson brings Ash’s insecurities to the surface to be confronted, the arrival of Rocky and his betrayal pushes Ginger to take action through cementing her convictions (“we either die free chickens or die trying”). With Mr Fox, his revelation of self is more philosophical. Throughout the film he makes note of his phobia of wolves. The wolf represents the wild animal within and the ideal form of masculinity within this film, something Mr Fox simultaneously aspires to and fears. It is not until Mr Fox makes peace with his son that we meet the wolf from a distance. This wolf represents the undiluted wild, appearing void of clothing, voice or material concern. The fact that Mr Fox is able to look him in the eye and make peace with his existence is a marked character development. Anderson said of it “I would always say, I’m not cutting it. That scene is why I’m making the movie”.
It is not without intent that this scene comes shortly after a rescue mission of Kristofferson shared with Ash. In finding a primary identity in fatherhood, the conflict of the wild versus the civilised animal quietens. The existence of it creates a more complex interpretation of the end of the film. With the rejection of the wild animal, the foxes make their way to prosperity by living in the sewer under a supermarket which they break into each night. This material gain is a conscious and continued move away from the natural self (“all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum but it is cool to the touch”), which presents itself as a subverted commentary on the American dream.
Fantastic Mr Fox marked a turning point in Wes Anderson’s film success after a critical low following the releases of The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Anderson co-wrote the script with Noah Baumbach, adapting it loosely from the 1970 novel. Whilst Chicken Run pulls together a patchwork of various film references both visually and with the score, Anderson bends Dahl’s tale so it includes anthropomorphic themes of loneliness and self acceptance. In terms of production both films act as stepping stones to the type of stop-motion we see today. In 2000, the Chicken Run team was made up of 180 people, 80 of which were animators and 30 sets were used. Despite the Spielberg funding, Pathé endorsement, and an all hands on deck approach, some days saw as little as 1.5 seconds being completed with an average week resulting in a gruelling 60 seconds of footage. The 2009 release of Fantastic Mr Fox was pregenitored by two years of filming. Anderson chose to record voices before any animation was done and used live settings to capture “great spontaneity in the recordings”; “we went out in a forest, [..] went in an attic, [and] went in a stable […] we went underground”.
In nearly a decade, the art of claymation moved from distinctively absurd to the more mainstream (or, at least, film student mainstream) stop motion work of Wes Anderson. Whilst it was often commented that Anderson’s scenes were so precise they looked miniature, the groundwork put in by the Aardman team in creating feature length films in this format should not go unnoticed. These films tell two distinctly different stories but both, when it comes down to it, are about a certain joy that comes from community. A certain truth quite apt for the way they were put together.
by H.R Gibs
H. R. Gibs, also known as Hannah Gibson (she/her), is a freelance journalist based in the Belfast music scene. Come September she moves to Dublin to tackle an MA course in journalism. She is deeply committed to the works of Carly Rae Jepsen and any movie makeover montage. Her favourite films include but are not limited to Billy Elliot, Marie Antoinette, God Help the Girl and As Good As It Gets. She can be found on twitter @hrgibs
Categories: Anything and Everything