Fantastic Mr. Fox — A 21st Century Brer Fox


Written on December 18, 2009 at 3:15 pm, by Lain Shakespeare

Have you seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet?

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I did the other night, and boy was it great.

I’ll confess: I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book.  But, I couldn’t help thinking that the aesthetic and the animal realm of the movie owed plenty to illustrator A.B. Frost and the Uncle Remus tales.

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit

In 1881 Uncle Remus changed children’s literature forever by forging a community of walking, talking critters living out their lives in a world that runs parallel to ours.

Sound familiar?  (You watched the trailer, right?)

You don’t even have to read the Uncle Remus tales to see that Brer Fox (and the rest of the critters) paved the way for his fantastic descendant.  Just look at how Frost depicts Brer Wolf and Brer Fox  —

Brer Wolf and Brer Fox, discussing the day's matters.

Their scruffy, bespoke get-ups would be right at home in Fantastic Mr. Fox, as would their serious demeanor.

It sounds crazy, but snappy-dressing, wise-cracking, vivid animal personages like this simply hadn’t happened before Uncle Remus came on the scene in 1881.  Nor had anything existed like the critter community situated along Brer Rabbit’s “Big Road.”

Brer Possum and Brer Badger

Weird, right?  It’s sort of like how chocolate chip cookies were really invented in the 1930s, but as far as my assumptions are concerned, they predate metallurgy.

All that said, director Wes Anderson has reinvented the genre with the arresting stop-motion community in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Mr. Fox and Rabbit in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox

Anderson’s movie is just as much for adults as it is for kids, mixing over-the-top shenanigans and existential questions.

For example, much of the movie revolves around the importance of Mr. Fox sticking to his day job (newspaper columnist) and repressing his urge to steal chickens.   The situation allows Anderson to touch on serious questions like: “Can animals outwit their instincts?” and “Is it possible for humans to escape their nature?”  Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, notes this is the perfect time for such inquiry: “Aesop and Uncle Remus had taught us that comedy is a disguised form of philosophical instruction.”

At one point, when Mr. Fox kills a chicken in one bite, his trusty sidekick Kylie notes just how violent and bloody the incident was.

The same violence and bestial instinct demonstrated in the movie is ever-present in the Brer Rabbit stories, like in “The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf,” where Brer Rabbit locks Brer Wolf in a trunk.

Brer Rabbit, locking Brer Wolf in before he pours hot liquid inside

As his little rabbits look on with glee, Brer Rabbit bores holes in the trunk so he can pour boiling water inside.

So maybe rabbits don’t instinctually boil their enemies alive in locked trunks.  But Brer Rabbit does do what it takes to protect and feed his family, only with a little diabolical finesse.

The parallels between Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Uncle Remus tales go on and on.   While most critics have been blowin’ up my Google Alerts with comparisons of Uncle Remus and Princess Tiana (as in, they’re both African-American characters in a Disney movie), they’re missing the much more substantial connections in Wes Anderson’s latest.

I’ll stop here, but I have included a few more of Frost’s illustrations, below.  If you see the movie, let me know what you think!

Brer Rabbit and the Lil Rabs

Brer Fox a-knocking

Lil Fox and Mr. Wolf

Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, sittin'.

Brer Rabbit, looking very put together

7 Comments to Fantastic Mr. Fox — A 21st Century Brer Fox

  1. Jamie says:

    Wow. I would LOVE to see a stop-motion animation movie of the Brer Rabbit tales. And my kids would, too.

  2. Jodi says:

    nice comparison Lain. The movie looks really cute and i don’t even remember seeing trailers for it. I’ll put it on my To Do List this holiday season.

  3. Joe says:

    Good post, Lain.

  4. Medina says:

    I saw The Fantastic Mr. Fox and totally agree that it is similar to Brer Rabbit. In fact, I would even go so far as to say it is a flattering rip off! The movie was wonderful. I loved the fact that Mr. Fox would say “cuss” every time he would have cursed. Charming!!!

  5. […] I just don’t know — do you like these illustrations best?  Or A.B. Frost’s? Or Eichenberg’s?  Or Don Daily’s?  Or Barry […]

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