Wes Anderson is a dandy who would make Oscar Wilde proud. Of all the sizzling epigrams that geysered out of Wilde’s pen, a favorite is, “A really well-made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature”. It’s a very dandy thing to say. Dandies like Wilde don't think that nature has any authority over art. They think the opposite. In dandyland, nature and reality imitate art. In other words, when we look at nature we see every nature painting and every National Geographic documentary we've ever seen. There is no “real reality” for humans without the human touch; nature is pretending to be art.
Wes Anderson’s dandy films bend reality over and paint a fuchsia moustache on its bum. They are sculpted and posed. They aren’t necessarily fake, like fantasy fake, but they are full of fakers. In all of them, the main character is a regular person upon appearance, but is basically an amateur and a fraud, playacting at greatness. Rushmore is the story of a teenage boy who masquerades as the king of his boarding school, but, in fact, he is a horrible student. The Life Aquatic is the story of a famous oceanographer, who is more interested in daring feats than science. Royal Tenenbaum, in The Royal Tenenbaums, is a wealthy and excellent lawyer, except that he has been disbarred and is a son-of-a bitch. These films are advertisements for the aestheticized life. Like Wilde, there is no true nature for Wes Anderson. Our authentic state is the one we imagine for ourselves, the trumped-up life we've convinced other people is impressive.
More than any of his previous films, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a really well-made buttonhole. 'I didn't want it so much to be more realistic,' Anderson told the Telegraph, 'I wanted it to be more ours.' Anderson elaborates on Roald Dahl’s book with dandy aplomb. In both tales, we have a family of foxes—Mrs. Fox, little children foxes, and the eponymous Fantastic Mr.—intent on getting their daily bread by stealing it from the valley’s three farmers: Farmer Boggis, Farmer Bunce, and Farmer Bean. An epic battle ensues between animals and farmers, each trying to outsmart the other. Mr. Fox thieves not because it is necessary, but because it’s more fun than foraging in the wild like other animals. “I'm just a wild animal,” Fox says with a sigh. But his regret is not very convincing. This is a fox who sports a double-breasted corduroy suit after all. Getting his food from farmers instead of hunting is the wildness of Mr. Fox. In other words, his “natural” state is to act against nature.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox film also brings in two children: the Foxes' only child Ash, and Kristofferson, a cousin of Ash's age who has come to stay with them. Kristofferson is good at everything. He is quiet, noble, scientific, athletic. He doesn’t have to try to be awesome, he was just born that way. His cousin Ash is a dumpy, unathletic dork who wears a tubesock for a bandit mask and a towel cape. The film’s sublime moment comes when Ash, betubesocked, styles himself into the unlikely hero and rescues Kristofferson, who had been captured by the farmers. Anderson is more interested in this invention of personal greatness than “natural” beauty or skill. If we are dorks, that can be magnificent. If we are assholes, that can be a story. If we are just animals…
Mr. Fox: Mole! What d'you got?
Mole: I can see in the dark.
Mr. Fox: We can use that. Rabbit?
Rabbit: I'm fast.
Mr. Fox: Badger?
Badger: Demolitions expert.
Mr. Fox: What? Since when?
…we can be demolitions experts. Why not?
The Andersonian world is Silly Putty and we are the newspaper imprints, forever pulling, exaggerating, distorting, erasing, and replacing our image upon it. Einstein once said, “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” More bluntly, he said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” Wes Anderson might also put it this way: Truth and beauty are stretchy.
Towards the movie's end, the triumphant animals zip down the highway in their sporty motorbike when, out in the foresty distance, they see a majestic and wild black fox on a hilltop. Do you speak English? Mr. Fox calls out to him. No. He tries French. The black wolf just poses. Mr. Fox then raises his fist in solidarity, far far away from the unadulterated animalness of the black fox. But lo, the wild black fox too raises his fist high. Mr. Fox speeds away in his little corduroy outfit, satisfied, ready to direct the next play.
In The Fantastic Mr. Fox’s final scene, Mr. Fox leads all the animals to a place where they can find the greatest bounty of all—a supermarket. Wouldn’t every other filmmaker send them to some wondrous, natural garden of Eden? But Mr. Fox makes his pitch. He joyfully holds up a bunch of crazily engineered foods, convincing the animals they are the best foods around. “This apple looks fake,” he says of one, “but it has stars on it.” Then the animals dance around to a Bobby Fuller Four song. I suppose the fake apple can represent more failure, the further deterioration of Mr. Fox’s true nature. But, it has stars on it.