Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox, the brilliant 2009 Wes Anderson film based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, is driven by two coming-of-age stories.

The first, and more traditional, follows Mr Fox’s 12 year old son Ash. Ash is short, awkward, and prone to theatrical sartorial choices that reinforce his status as an outsider. He is forever comparing himself to his fantastic father and implausibly gifted cousin, Kristofferson. Over the course of the film, Ash learns to make the most of his strengths.

The second coming-of-age story is that of Mr Fox himself. Despite being a husband, father, home owner, and provider, Mr Fox sees himself as a ‘wild animal’, a kind of perpetual teenager who continually needs to prove himself to the world.

In the opening scene, Mr Fox and his wife are caught in a fox trap while raiding a squab farm. Mrs Fox reveals that she is pregnant, and Mr Fox agrees to settle into a safer life for the sake of his family. This brings about an internal conflict in Mr Fox. He retains his self-image (a wild animal), which is at odds with the safe domestic life he makes as a father and newspaper columnist.

Fantastic Mr Fox is a furry movie in that it features anthropomorphic characters. I’d also argue that Mr Fox’s internal conflict has parallels with the furry experience. His internal conflict is similar to the disconnect of identity experienced by many furries: we present one version of ourselves to the real world but have an internal life where our furry identity looms large.

I don’t want to overextend my linguistic gymnastics by stretching for too many parallels between the identity crises in Mr Fox and in furries. However, both we and Mr Fox must find some way to manage our split personalities.

Mr Fox does a poor job of this in the start of the film. He is prone to self-aggrandizement and risky behaviour, as if he is trying to prove his wildness despite his domesticity. He treats his friend, Badger, poorly – physically threatening him after being advised against a risky purchase, and cutting him off mid-speech. Mr Fox does so because he feels he must prove himself as the wild, fantastic animal he imagines himself to be.

Mr Fox’s crisis is resolved in the best – and most flawed – scene in the film: the wolf scene.

Just after the climactic action sequence, Mr Fox spies a wolf in the distance. The wolf is a wild animal: quadruped, mute, strong. Mr Fox, despite his self-professed lupophobia, tries to engage the wolf in conversation. The wolf remains silent. The scene ends with the two making a non-verbal connection, acknowledging each other with a raised paw. As the wolf leaves, Mr Fox says to his son and nephew “What a beautiful creature. Wish him luck, boys.

It’s a powerful and understated scene. The connection between Mr Fox and the wolf indicates the reconciliation of Fox’s splintered identities. The gesture of acceptance shows the domesticated Mr Fox making peace with his atavistic self. With this acceptance, Mr Fox can find balance between his wild, internal world and domestic, external world. His newspaper column becomes edgier (“Fox on the Prowl”) and his next raid is on a safer target – a supermarket.

The gesture between Mr Fox and the wolf is a moment of personal triumph. It’s something we can all strive for.

Unfortunately, the wolf scene is arguably a racist one. The black wolf stands in counterpoint to the civil world of Mr Fox et. al., and is a representation of the wild.

The black wolf is intended to be a metaphor for Mr Fox’s internal atavistic shadow. However there is a history of blackness in cinema, where it is shorthand for mysteriousness and untamed animalism. This is a fundamentally racist association as it degrades blacks as being more like animals (and so less human). The black wolf is pure animal.

And, unfortunately, the key gesture between Mr Fox and the wolf looks a lot like a black power salute.

There is a long history of film using black characters in a racist fashion, even in otherwise excellent films. Consider Morgan Freeman’s benevolent servant in Driving Miss Daisy, or Michael Clarke Duncan’s “magical Negro” in The Green Mile. Such black characters only exist to act benevolently towards the white main characters, and have little other apparent motivation. Freeman and Duncan, in these films, are playing the stock character of the noble savage. Neither film is intended to be racist, however the characterization of the black characters in anachronistic.

I don’t think that Wes Anderson intended the wolf scene to have any racial connotations. Anderson has form: 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited is about the three Whitman brothers (literally, the White Men) who get lost in the Rajasthani desert. The Indians in the film are broadly characterized, but this is a deliberate device to reflect the privilege of the Whitmans and their unfamiliarity with the world outside their bubble. The Darjeeling Limited is a direct exploration of ‘whiteness’, arguably a theme carried throughout many of Anderson’s films.

Mr Fox is equally privileged and suffers the condition of being white. He is nattily dressed, speaks in a quasi-formal manner that suggests a traditional British-style education, is fluent in French, and is comfortable with Latin. While none of these things necessarily qualify him as white (he is, after all, a delightful shade of orange), it’s a reasonable assumption to make in the context of Anderson’s other work.

Like the black characters in The Green Mile and Driving Miss Daisy, I suspect that the black wolf’s cameo will become anachronistic over time. It’ll remain a small criticism of an otherwise excellent film, at least until the world improves to a point where skin colour doesn’t have associational baggage.

I, for one, would be happier if Anderson had taken a page out of the furry book and made his wolf blue. (Neon green bangs optional.)

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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20 thoughts on “Fantastic Mr Fox

    1. Hi Collin, thanks for the kind words. It’s certainly true that I might be overthinking things, but I guess that’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing for [a][s].

      I hope you do share the article, and feel free to point out that there is no requirement to agree with me on the suggestion of racism. There are a few comments below yours making the same point.

      Worst case, copy the first two-thirds of the article and paste it into an email :)

  1. In general, the furry analog for racism really ought to be “speciesism” I think. There are certainly hints of that in this film as well, though to be honest I don’t care for Dahl’s writing and didn’t think much of the film either.

    Carnivores looking down upon herbivores and treating them as a “lesser class” of being would be more like what I’d expect to represent racism in a furry story.

    The symbolism of black (clothing, fur, skies, and all sorts of other contexts) in literature is not generally that of race. It is used to represent death, the unknown, or the hidden and secret. If I saw racism in the film or the book in this case, it was between the human farmers and the animal characters.

    1. Hi Tivo, thanks for another thoughtful comment.

      I’m sure that the blackness of the wolf in Mr Fox is intended to be a metaphor for Fox’s hidden internal self, as you suggest. I accept that no racism was intended, however I maintain that it’s a valid – if unfortunate – interpretation.

      1. An unfortunate interpretation, indeed.

        But when a reader or viewer takes a misstep in interpretation, whose fault is that? I don’t believe it should be placed in the lap of the author, artist, director, etc.

        Doing that is what leads to pointless behavior such as the frequent (in the past) censorship of Mark Twain’s writings. Twain was not deliberately or particularly racist, but he wrote accurately about what he saw around him. He lived in a racist society, and evidence of that was a daily occurrence. He depicted things as they were.

        Nathaniel Hawthorne, on the other hand, used black frequently in symbolic contexts. Was his writing racist? Not any more than Twain’s writing was. Yet both have been accused of racism.

        This is clearly a case where the person with the wrong perception needs to be educated, rather than the artistic work being presented in a different manner.

        1. A great question and one of my favourites! As a good postmodernist, I’d argue that there is no such thing as incorrect perception. (I also fully accept that there are a lot of very clever people who regard postmodernism to be the worst kind of meaningless intellectual twaddle.)

          It would, however, be ignorant to apply today’s norms to Twain et al. I don’t believe that my perspective on Fantastic Mr Fox suffers in a comparable way.

  2. I’m not sure you didn’t miss the mark on part of that. The Black [x] predates modern racism by several centuries. It was considered to harken Death, far more than as a racial boogeyman. The Black [evil] Knight, the headsmans Black Hood, the Black Robes of a magistrate, etc al.

    While I havn’t seen the film or read the book it is based on I cannot comment in-context, but I suffer from a knee-jerk reaction to finding racism/hate where they don’t seem to belong. It comes from growing up white in a Black run city. There was always someone finding racism/hate where none was intended, especially if it could be used to shut down something they didn’t like.

    I just don’t see the racism in the story, especially since Roald Dahl didn’t suffer through the civil rights crisis of race in quite the same way as us Americans did. In the works of his that I have read he plays on stereotypes but doesn’t link them to perceived racial limitations, merely behavioral ones.

    TLDR: Sometimes, Black is just a color.

    1. Dain, I think you’re completely correct. The wolf is black because he’s intended to be a metaphor for Fox’s shadow self – the internal wild animal that is at odds with his ultra-suave exterior.

      There is no racism in the book, and I’m sure that none was intended in the film.

      But racism isn’t about intent: it’s about interpretation. Nobody thinks they are racist. Even the BNP, a nationalist UK political party that make the KKK look positively inclusive, deny that they are racist despite all evidence to the contrary. As you will have discovered living in a very multicultural city (I’m guessing that you’ve seen racism in both directions), racists often dress up their language in quasi-justification, perhaps citing cultural superiority or eugenics.

      Fantastic Mr Fox isn’t in this category of course. But I maintain that Wes Anderson has unwittingly left this scene open to such interpretation. To wit: http://i191.photobucket.com/albums/z43/sevenarts/cinema/fantasticmrfox4.jpg

  3. While the description of racism in this essay is a unique interpretation of the film, I find it much more likely to believe that the filmmakers wished to remain faithful to the natural coloration of animals. The European black wolf strongly resembles the wolf portrayed in the film, and it is my belief that the use of color was not meant to comment on race in this instance. There are other characters with black fur (Badger and the Rat), and although they represent different social classes neither reads strongly as non-white. On this note, I would suggest that the most notable element of race in the film is the LACK of racial diversity, not misrepresentation or stereotyping therein. However, it seems probable that “species” has been superimposed over “race” in this anthropomorphic universe, in which case a plethora of diversity is presented.

    Mr. Fox’s fear of wolves could very much relate to the wolf being natural predator of foxes, again underscoring the characters’ animalistic qualities. His encounter with the wolf fills him with awe, and tears come to his eyes as he states, “What a beautiful creature.” The wolf represents the purest form of ‘being a wild animal’, the lifestyle Mr. Fox gave up the moment he started a family. It represents what could have been, and therefore stands out as Mr. Fox’s counterpart in the film. It is reminiscent of a life left behind, and his final encounter with this was a necessary reconciliation for Mr. Fox to move on.

    1. Hi Eric, thanks for the comment. I completely agree that the wolf was not intended to be a comment on race in any way. Wes Anderson is a formalist director and every piece of this wonderful film is very deliberate. As you say, the wolf is black because he’s a representation of Fox’s hidden internal ‘wild animal’ shadow. Anderson’s use of the black wolf and the foreshadowing of the scene is just about perfect.

      You’re also correct about the lack of racial diversity in the film. Anderson’s films – all of them – are very white. This isn’t through racism, but simply because he is analysing the world of white privilege. As I mentioned, he explores this directly in The Darjeeling Limited, another excellent film. He laudably doesn’t use racial/cultural stereotyping as a lazy excuse for anthropomorphic character development (ala Shrek).

      But I still think my interpretation is a fair one, even though I accept that any racism is completely unintentional. I don’t think that the racist black characters in the other films I mentioned (and more, perhaps most egregiously in The Legend of Bagger Vance) are intentionally racist either. But racism isn’t about intent, it’s about interpretation.

      Your racist uncle thinks he’s just being plainspoken.

      1. JM,

        In light of my initial comment, I appreciate your ability to debate rather than argue; it makes for a far more interesting (and far less frustrating) experience. I would agree that interpretation weighs heavily on media of any kind; just as the intent of the artist shapes an overall piece, so too does the way it is received. An artist can try all he/she wants to sculpt their work to deliver a particular message…but when the viewer gleans something else, the Truth they see is no less real than what was intended. We therefore arrive at the inevitable conclusion that we are both correct in our arguments, for neither can disprove how the other interprets the film.

        But, as a practiced film theorist, I’m going at least attempt to reinforce my argument :)

        Your position that the wolf could be read as a racist characterization seems to rest on the following signifiers: (1) the color of the fur associates it with a particular race, (2) the gesture it makes mirrors the raised fist of Black Power, and (3) the fact that the wolf is feral sets it up as a foil to the more privileged Mr. Fox.

        To these, I say:

        (1) Color may be incidental, as I outlined before.
        (2) While you are certainly astute in making this association, I would like to casually remind that this gesture is not exclusively weighted toward propagation of Black Power. The same gesture has been used by American Indians, feminists, Jews, communists, socialists, farmers, members of the Occupy Movement, and many other groups/organizations/causes. My point being, the gesture has a rich history and means a great number of things to a great many people, and does not belong exclusively to any one movement. If you are to assert that it has racial significance in this moment in the film, we should also acknowledge the MANY other implications it may have. Focusing on only one seems neglectful of others.

      2. (3) Although the wolf is more feral than Mr. Fox, I don’t see this as a indicator of racial inferiority. In retrospect, I amend my previous argument that the wolf represents “the purest form of being a wild animal.” I now state that the ability to gesture in this way, a very non-animal action, is characteristic of anthropomorphism, suggesting it is something “more human” than it appears. The beagles, then, appear as the most feral creatures of the film (with one even appearing as rabid). In the case of the wolf, I would also advise against interpreting silence as cultural inferiority. Language and communication barriers are hardly signifiers of ineptitude…they are simply barriers.

        In short, racism is the suggestion that one race is less than another. Although it’s very possible that the wolf could represent another race, I’m not sure I grasp how this can be seen as a negative toward that specific race, even unintentionally. Simply because there is a history of stereotypical and/or anachronistic characters in cinema does not mean that every black character is an indicator of past representation.

        Furthermore, I disagree with your stance on racism. By definition, intent is very much a part of what makes racism, as outlined many dictionaries will agree. While I agree with you that unintentional racism and/or discrimination occurs on the basis of white privilege (and male privilege, etc) I disagree that racism is NOT about intent. I can very easily and very consciously wrong somebody of another race BECAUSE they are of another race.

        Aside from this film, the only other Wes Anderson film I have seen was MOONRISE KINGDOM, so I cannot speak much of his authorship in terms of representing white identity (although, race does seem oddly absent from MOONRISE, if memory serves). I’ll be sure to watch DARJEELING LIMITED.

        Nevertheless, for the wolf to be read as racist, it must bare the potential to be seen as derogatory. And because Mr. Fox COULD have lived like the wolf, and ADMIRES the wolf, I’m not sure I see an instance of any race being targeted as ‘less than’ another. I believe the wolf is significant because it represents the matter of choice, rather than something genetic.

        Also: thank your for the intellectual stimulation. :)

        1. Eric, this is great stuff. I received this comment just as I sat at my desk for another workday, and was struck with the immediate desire to hammer out a reply. Sadly I’ve had to wait, but it’s certainly got me thinking.

          I don’t want to respond to your whole comment, simply because I think it speaks for itself. People aside from you and I will scroll down this far and read your thoughts, and I’m sure they’ll value them as much as I do. (I also get the feeling that we could keep this up for several weeks, zeroing in on various trivia and minutia from Fantastic Mr Fox, and undoubtedly other films as we go.)

          But! I do want to comment on a couple of things. Firstly, I think you’ve nailed Wes Anderson perfectly when you comment on the absence of race. That’s the best way I can think of summarizing his racial politics – off the top of my head the only major non-white character I can think of is Seu Jorge in the The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which is my favourite of the lot), and he doesn’t do a great deal more than sing inspired Bowie covers in Portuguese. Given the absence of race, it’s slightly silly to suggest that a single moment in an Anderson film might be racist. Yet here I am.

          A further comment to add to your point on the fox-wolf gesture: not only is it common and not restricted to black pride (as you point out), but it’s probably the only gesture Anderson could have reasonably chosen. If Fox doesn’t close his fist, it’s a Nazi salute*; any other gesture couldn’t be clearly seen when copied by the wolf in the background. I wonder if the gesture itself was a late change during filming, as they learned the limitations of the scene’s structure.

          Finally, I’d challenge your comparison between the beagles and the wolf. Yes, they’re both feral, but they are treated very different by Mr Fox & the cast. The beagles are no more sentient than the chickens; Mr Fox speaks French to the wolf.

          I guess that’s the thrust of my opinion: that the wolf is less human than Mr Fox. The (inadvertent, arguable) racism is the same as that which sees people toss bananas at black footballers in parts of Europe.

          (* P.S. you’ll note that I have invoked Godwin’s Law while supporting your argument. Therefore I win.)

  4. I enjoyed the movie and only saw it for the first time very recently. I appreciate your noticing and nuance of the potential racial interpretation and agree that regardless of intention, that the tendency towards white privilege can show up as part of an invisible ordinary – even up to and including association of darker colours for shadow self, or villainy etc, that isn’t actually necessarily exempt from the association of racial profiling though it’s certainly likely to be unintentional.

    I would have liked to hear your thoughts on Mrs Fox – I thought her character was hinted at being awesome and I am sad that she was largley two dimensional and there as a background prop in a movie that was otherwise well put together and interesting with it’s dualistic coming-of-age storylines.

    1. Hi Ju. It’s an excellent question and one that I considered when writing this article. I proudly consider myself a feminist and I too noticed the dearth of female characters in Fantastic Mr Fox.

      Outside of Mrs Fox, I can only recall the schoolmate of Ash and Kristofferson (who exists only to create tension between those two) and the otter who offers to take shorthand while the animals list their wild-animal strengths prior to the final assault to save Kristofferson.

      I’m not that familiar with the source material from Dr Seuss, but I’m guessing that his book isn’t exactly swimming with female characters either. So it’s probable that Anderson adaptation is simply following Seuss’s lead. I’m also going to ignore the fact that two-thirds of Anderson’s female characters are one-dimensional stereotypes (love interest / secretary), and I’ll do so because I think Mrs Fox is pretty well drawn.

      She is a relatively minor character but I think she is fully fleshed-out as a person. She starts by joining Mr Fox on the opening raid: her suggestion that they need to find a safer life applies to both of them. Unlike Mr Fox, she adapts: we see her with an active internal life (painting all those violent landscapes) and her progression from scepticism to outright anger when she learns of Mr Fox’s juvenile risk-taking. She is also a key co-conspirator in in the climax, and there is even (positive) reference to her active sex life before marriage.

      Mrs Fox is an adult. If anything, I’d say that Anderson is making comment on the preponderance of man-children that seem to be the norm in popular culture nowadays. TV, cinema, and even advertising is swamped with fully-grown men acting like petulant 12 year-olds, attached to a woman who is clearly the only grown-up in the house. (Why these capable women tolerate, or are even attracted to, such mental midgets is beyond me.) Mr Fox, at least, matures. He and his wife are – at the end of the film – a true partnership, as demonstrated by their moment of ‘glowing’.

      So I don’t think Anderson is being misogynistic, more that his film is an exploration of the condition of masculinity. Kristofferson’s zen trumps Ash’s anger; Mr Fox finds contentment in maturity. Anderson is suggesting that masculinity does not equate to endless adolescence.

  5. You make some really excellent points – I appreciate those things about Mrs Fox and looking just at this one movie there’s a lot that is redeeming. I still found her character under-realised for me, because her entire construction was around being Mr Fox’s partner and Ash’s mother – the only insight we get into her personal self and ambition is through her paintings.

    Your point about the man child storyline and it being an exploration of masculinity is I think my ultimate point. I am perhaps at the point in my media watching where this kind of thing is *so* prevalent that I am tired of the way media is perpetuating the status quo endlessly – and misogynistically (amongst other *isms). It is harder to appreciate some of the truly spectacular stories that explore masculinity because at this point it’s largely the only option out there – there are genuinely few explorations of femininity or gender in general, less that are treated with the same level of dignity and power that stories about men are.

    There’s a coding that happens with media where stories about men and their concerns are important and valuable on a societal level, and women’s aren’t – they’re always about family and care and love but not on the level of being valuable in society, just for themselves and their immediate people-they-take-care of. It gets me down. Fantastic Mr Fox, as much as I like it, still reflects this same coding.

    1. I agree with all of that. Like you say, I think it’s okay to be depressed by the excess of explorations of masculinity, while appreciating Fantastic Mr Fox for doing it well.

  6. Greetings. Fantastic Mr. Fox is perhaps the only Roald Dahl book I have not read and the only Wes Anderson movie I have not seen. Yet here I am commenting. Hah.
    I am writing primarily because I am intrigued about what you wrote regarding the face we present to the world and our own inner life where our furry nature looms large. As someone who has been furry for twenty years and “in the closet” with no particular desire to step out, I’m curious about how others handle this.
    I agree entirely that there is a very long history of using black characters in racist ways in all forms of media. I do take issue with your examples however. Both movies you cite are set in the past, between 1930 and perhaps 1960. Both are set in the American South. Deep South. I would argue that it is not the characters but the setting that is anachronistic. Black chauffeurs and their white employers were not on equal social or legal footing in Mobile in the 60’s. Hell, regardless of race, chauffeurs and those who employ them are not on equal social footing today. We may be slightly more polite about it.
    The character of John Coffee is trickier. There is a supernatural element in play that muddies things a bit, but ignoring that we have white guards and black prisoners in a Southern prison circa 1930. I feel it would be far more racist to suggest that things were other than they were. In fact, the really unbelievable character in that film is Tom Hanks. A white guard giving a black prisoner a second thought? In that time? In that place? John Coffee’s Jeebus lite is more believable.
    Anyway, I’m off to find both a copy of the book and the movie as it’s clear I’m missing out. I’m becoming a big fan of this site, and hope to see more of these thoughtful articles in the future. Keep up the good work.
    Regards, shadycat

    1. Hi Shadycat, thanks for the kind words.

      I hope you’ll forgive me for skipping your thoughts on racism-in-film – it’s interesting stuff, but I think there is already plenty of discussion in these comments. I felt like I needed to discuss the racism aspect to complete my critique of the film, however it’s the identity question which is more interesting to me.

      I’ve been around furry for a long time myself and I have no desire to “come out” as furry to any people outside of the community, beyond one or two very close friends. For me, this is the best way to manage the difference between my internal and external worlds. It sounds like you’ve come to a similar decision.

      I’ve written about the furry identity in these pages a few times, most recently in Growing Up (http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2012/07/23/growing-up/). And curiously, I’ve just stumbled across some new data from the Furry Research Project (run by Gerbasi et al) which provides a bit more grist for the mill. By my reading, they show evidence that our internal furry identity is helping us manage ourselves, and the outside world, better.

      I’ll coalesce these thoughts into an article at some point. I’m certainly very interested in the topic, and I think it’s central to the furry condition. It’s pleasing to hear that you’re interested in the topic too.

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