Men are vain, insecure creatures. I know this from first-hand experience. We live in perpetual denial (My hair’s not thinning, my waistline’s not expanding, I could still run three miles without stopping if I felt so inclined) until the sad day comes when a sliver of reality worms its way into our stunted consciousness and we respond by submerging ourselves in a painful, hopefully short-lived phenomenon known as the midlife crisis.
This crisis can manifest itself in many ways: Some of us change jobs. Some go on an African safari. Some start listening to rap. Me, I’m hoping my midlife crisis includes some sort of Porsche.
Mr. Fox—well, he kills birds.
He is a fox, after all, so it makes some sort of sense. He was quite a good bird-killer when he was younger—fast and clever and relentless. In fact, he was the Joe Cool of bird-killers, a bushy-tailed charmer with a gleam in his eye and a feather clamped between his teeth. But then one day Mrs. Fox told him that a kit was on its way, and Mr. Fox knew that chapter of his life was over. He promised he’d settle down.
So he did. And everything was … OK.
But after a dozen fox-years, Mr. Fox gets a sense that something’s missing. Sure, he has a wife, a son and a comfortable burrow in the woods. Sure, he has a nice job at the local woodland newspaper. Still, he’s peckish for something more. At first he imagines that a change of scenery might cure what ails him, so he abandons his hole in the ground (“It makes me feel poor,” he explains to Mrs. Fox) and buys a nice place in a tree—even though Mrs. Fox would rather not move.
“You know, foxes live in holes for a reason,” she says.
But when Mr. Fox checks out the view in his new leafy casa, he sees a sight that really kicks his crisis into high gear: three huge bird farms owned, respectively, by Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
It’s a sore temptation indeed, particularly for a wild animal bred to kill birds. He tells himself that he just wants to do “one more job” before swearing off bird-killing forever. And this time, he’ll mean it. Or he’ll certainly mean it after the next last hunt. Or the one after that. Soon, the pantry’s full of fresh poultry, and Mrs. Fox grows suspicious that it’s not all coming from the local market.
“If what I think is happening is happening, it better not be,” she tells her husband.
Mr. Fox’s resurgent career in bird-killing and stealing, after some initial success, goes south in a hurry. Bean, the meanest of the farmers, doesn’t take kindly to having his birds (or his famed alcoholic cider) pilfered, and he enlists fellow farmers Boggis and Bunce in a near-insane vendetta against the thief. And so Mr. Fox’s midlife crisis winds up as a crisis for the entire forest. It’s a sobering reminder that we should never let our animal instincts trump our common sense.
“I’m a wild animal,” Mr. Fox tells his wife by way of explanation.
“You’re also a husband and father,” she scolds him. “In the end, we all die unless you change.”
While Mr. Fox struggles with his nature, his son, Ash, has his own issues. Sullen and awkward, Ash wants to be an athlete—just like his legendary pops—ignoring the fact that he has all the strength and grace of a phonebook. To make matters worse, his physically gifted cousin, Kristofferson, has come to stay with the Fox family. Kristofferson is everything Ash is not: tall, well-spoken and a natural athlete—and he’s a super-nice guy to boot. Ash, naturally, hates him, and begins spreading rumors that Kristofferson has “beagle lice.”
None of that is particularly positive … but it does set the stage for what turns into a touching buddy-fox tale: Kristofferson gets nabbed by Farmer Bean’s wife, and it’s up to a very apologetic Ash to rescue him. That finally leads to Mr. Fox—whom Ash has for years tried so desperately to impress—telling his boy that he’s thrilled with him just the way he is. All this is done without demeaning Kristofferson’s obvious gifts.
“I’m not different, am I?” Ash asks his mother at one point.
“We all are. Especially him,” she says, pointing to her hubby. “But there’s something pretty fantastic about that.”
It’s a lesson all the woodland creatures learn during the course of their battle with the farmers: They all have their own strengths, and in using their strengths for the collective good, they manage to do some pretty … fantastic things.
Kristofferson, who knows martial arts, often meditates. “Is he praying?” Mr. Fox asks. “I think it’s yoga,” Mrs. Fox responds.
When the film opens we meet a younger—pregnant—Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Their marital status at this point is a bit uncertain, and there’s talk, later, about Mrs. Fox having been the “town tart.” A rat seems to flirt with Mrs. Fox, prompting her to call him on it. Ash has a crush on his chemistry lab partner and he gets angry when the girl starts talking to Kristofferson. “You’re disloyal,” he says. Whereupon Kristofferson and the girl start going steady.
“How could a fox ever be happy without, excuse the expression, a chicken between his teeth?” Mr. Fox says.
And Mr. Fox does indeed kill chickens. (The birds’ bloody ends are modestly avoided, but we do sometimes see a shower of feathers and hear growling noises.) Big X’s crossing the birds’ eyes indicate that the limp creatures are now pining for the fjords.
Still, Mr. Fox’s possum partner, Kylie, complains, “That’s so gross! There’s blood and everything!”
The farmers fire guns at Mr. Fox and others. And Mr. Fox loses his tail during one firefight. (Farmer Bean takes to wearing it around his neck.) They attack the Fox home with earthmovers and eventually flood an underground labyrinth of tunnels with alcoholic cider. Fox and friends also encounter a very angry—rabid—beagle.
All the woodland creatures eat with alarming ferocity. Kristofferson uses his martial arts skills on a school bully, and Mr. Fox and his lawyer (a badger) nearly come to blows. Mrs. Fox slaps Mr. Fox across the face, leaving scratch marks. Animals throw exploding pinecones at their human assailants, catching a neighborhood on fire. Animals get shocked by an electric fence (with apparently no ill effects despite the fact that we see their skeletons when they’re zapped).
Fox seems to have a long-standing rivalry with that flirty rat I mentioned earlier (who serves as Bean’s chief of security), and the two have some knock-down, drag-outs—the final one ending in the rat’s demise.
Technically, none. But here’s the thing: These animals, instead of cussing, use the actual word cuss, and so we hear an awful lot of phrases like, “What the cuss?” “Oh my cuss!” and “Are you cussing with me?”
Furry animals drink wine and the alcoholic cider. Humans do too. Mr. Fox laces blueberries with a powerful sleeping agent to knock out a squadron of attack beagles. Bean smokes a huge cigar.
Mr. Fox isn’t just being a wild animal when he hunts birds. He’s stealing, and the film presents it as such: He and Kylie sneak into farm compounds with bandit masks on—and they eventually try to draw Kristofferson (“a natural,” Mr. Fox says) into their illicit scheme. Kristofferson is flattered to be included, but says he’s not the best person for the job because he doesn’t “like to be dishonest with people.”
[Spoiler Warning] By the end of the film, Mr. Fox stops stealing … from the farms. But he and his friends continue to loot a grocery store.
Ash is a big pill throughout much of the film, talking back to his father and being a complete jerk to Kristofferson. (He tries to make up for it later.)
Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on a book by Roald Dahl, the guy who penned such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. While his books are often magical, they can also be pretty dark and intense. (When he wasn’t writing children’s books, Dahl dabbled in horror screenplays.) So it’s not shocking that this film is sometimes dark and intense, as its makers attempted to retain both Dahl’s magic and complexity.
They also infuse it with adult-level humor: The dialogue is sharp and, at times, a bit risqué.
That still doesn’t fully explain Mr. Fox, though. A colleague remarked to me, as we were leaving the theater, that what we’d just seen isn’t a children’s movie—not so much because it’s crass but because its themes and humor aren’t on a kid’s level. If you remember, I opened this review with an allusion to midlife crises. And that’s something no 8-year-old can begin to understand. (Or care about.)
Which brings me to an interesting trend I’ve been seeing in movies of late: Children’s movies are often more mature, more thoughtful and more responsible than some of the adult-targeted flicks I see.
What I mean is that R-rated romps are often infantile in their composition and lack of intelligent nuance, trumpeting only perpetual (and irresponsible) adolescence. The likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox, meanwhile, laud moral compunctions, responsibility, cooperation and familial unity.
Mr. Fox tells us that it’s not just good to grow up, it’s absolutely necessary. Sure, killing chickens was fun and all, but you can’t kill chickens for the rest of your life, can you?
The movie doesn’t have a stereotypical happy ending, where everyone gets to do exactly what they want to do. And yet it is happy. The animals survive and, on some level, thrive. Mr. Fox trades his chicken-hunting talents for more mundane trips down the grocery store aisle. And that’s OK, we’re told. “We’ll eat tonight,” Mr. Fox says, “and we’ll eat together.”
Steady responsibility isn’t a particularly cool, glitzy or suave moral to the story. Which is why so few films exalt it. But it can be put on center stage, as Fantastic Mr. Fox shows us.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.