Last week I finally got to see Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and from an artistic and cinematic perspective, I found it absolutely delightful.  As a long time fan of Roald Dahl, the Wes Anderson films, and pretty much any kind of stop-motion animation, I was immensely pleased to see it was everything I’d hoped it would be: whimsically animated, with a witty, quirky script and a nice dose of dark humor.  But it was also very interesting on a deeper–and perhaps unintentional–level. As much as I enjoyed it, I also couldn’t help but notice how it problematizes the relationships between humans and animals, and I wonder whether other people picked up on these themes as well.

The story is essentially about a conflict between humans and animals. From the beginning it is very clear who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad.’ Mr. Fox, the hero, is the one we identify with, the one we want to win, even though he steals from humans.  The farmers, “Boggis, Bunce, and Bean”, though human, are nasty, wicked fellows who run farms that Anderson portrays as something like high-security prisons full of alarms and traps. The farmers are presented as relentless in their efforts to capture and punish the Foxes; we are required to judge their treatment of the Foxes as unjust: shooting off Mr. Fox’s tail and wearing it as a necktie, locking his nephew in a milk crate, trapping him and his wife in a cage, flooding the Foxes’ tunnels, cutting down their treehouse, and so on.  What is less clear is whether we are asked to judge their treatment of the farm animals as unjust. Should it seem normal that the chicken and geese are confined to sheds? Or should we look at that as an extension of the farmers’ cruelty?

There are four very clear categories of characters in the film: the humans, who can talk, but not to the animals; the anthropomorphized animals such as the Fox family and their neighbors, who can talk to each other, but not to the humans; the domesticated animals such as the guard dogs and chickens, which cannot talk; and a ‘truly’ wild animal– a wolf, which does not talk and is seen only from a distance in one scene.

There is something innately humorous about putting animals in human roles and situations. If you’ve ever read the comic strip “The Far Side,” you’ve probably noticed that this is a device that Gary Larson used all the time. It’s effective because it reveals some aspect of human or animal behavior to be absurd, either in general, or in the context of that situation: take the PTA meeting full of fish debating whether spawning should be taught in schools, or the pride of lions passing around pre-moistened towlettes before dining on a freshly killed wildebeest. That meeting of human and animal behaviors is both funny and informative. Anderson’s world takes this to the extreme: the Foxes and their neighbors occupy a miniature society modeled after a stereotypical human town. Much of the film’s charm comes not just from the characters and the animation but the fact that animals acting out human roles makes those roles either absurd or endearing. We see the animal “kids” do things like play a ridiculous sport called “whackbat,” (oh, how cute! Animals playing sports!) and doing chemistry experiments (aw, animals doing science!), for example.

I realize  that this is essentially the core message of my last post, but this film is a good example of just how much we get a kick out of seeing animals that act just like us–that is, until we desire to use the bodies of those animals for something (food, clothing, testing/experimentation, etc). When it comes to our entertainment, we love to humanize them as much as possible,  but when it comes to consuming them, we have to instantly withdraw any human attributes. Being non-human is a source of the humor and entertainment, as well as the basis for having one’s body consumed and mutilated. We would never eat the flesh of another human or wear another human’s skin; we’re averse to testing potentially dangerous substances on humans. We are less reserved about doing these things to beings that cannot talk.

The Foxes and their neighbors often use the excuse “we’re wild animals” for their behavior in the film. It unites them and opposes them to the farmers. Yet they also very distinctly abstain from doing something that wild animals tend to do: eat each other. In a scene in which the Foxes are hiding from the farmers in a tunnel underground, deprived of food and water, we do not see Mr. Fox and his wife kill and eat their friend Kylie the opossum.  Why not? Wouldn’t a starving fox eat an opossum, if given the opportunity? A fox probably would, but a human wouldn’t. Because we have “humanized” the “wild” animals, they must conform to our basic sense of ethics about which animals can be harmed and which ones cannot. It would be very unsettling to see Mr. Fox kill and eat his attorney, the badger. It is less unsettling to see him kill and eat a chicken, which cannot talk. Those animals which have a personality and the ability to talk are no longer eligible to be food animals and should not be harmed: companions and equals cannot be killed. The silent animals–the guard dogs, chicken, and geese–are fair game. Perhaps the most human thing about Anderson’s animal characters is that they must discriminate between species the same way we do.  Why would it be strange to see  Felicity Fox wearing a fur coat or eating a neighboring rabbit, but it isn’t strange to see her roast a chicken?

The term “speciesism” often gets a bad reaction; in light of the suffering caused by racism and sexism, for instance, it seems somewhat gauche to elevate animal suffering (which cannot be expressed through language) to the level of human suffering (which can). But as always, it’s worth the reminder that all of things are decisions about how to limit the rights and opportunities of another being on the basis of body characteristics. The consequences of racism and sexism range from completely subconscious prejudices at their mildest to violence at their most extreme. Yet the consequence of speciesism is virtually always violence: condemnation to death (as food or clothing) or a lifetime of servitude (as a test subject or performer).

I don’t know if a children’s movie is necessarily the best arena to address the ways we praise certain animals and subject others to systematic torture, and I don’t blame Wes Anderson for leaving those issues alone. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a brilliant film which happens to touch on certain troubling questions by virtue of the fact that it features talking animals.

On another note, I do wonder whether anyone else was reminded of the Animal Liberation Front (whose members wear balaclavas when breaking into factory farms to rescue animals) during those scenes in which the Foxes put on “bandit masks” to break into the chicken farm.