The James Clayton Column: Truly Fantastic

James salutes the majesty of Wes Anderson, after sitting through a screening of Fantastic Mr Fox...

What is ‘fantastic’? In an age where superlatives are thrown round willy-nilly all over film reviews, billboard adverts and ‘performer and panel’ TV shows, I’ve a feeling that we’ve lost the true meaning of a fantastic word. As with ‘great’, ‘excellent’, ‘awesome’ and ‘brilliant’, the phrase ‘fantastic’ has been debased by mass misuse and maligned appropriation to things that are anything but ‘fantastic’.

But what is ‘fantastic’? If we turn to the wisdom of the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that the adjective ‘fantastic’ has two definitions. First one: it refers to “something imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality; strange or exotic” or “seeming more appropriate to the imagination than to reality”. The second: “extraordinarily good or attractive”.

Going off those criteria, I’d say that the Fantastic Four movies are either deluded or lying to us and diabolically using language to deceive the viewer into thinking they’re going to see something supernaturally spectacular. Instead, they get the crappiest of all comic book movie adaptations. That’s not just a disappointment: that’s dishonest false advertising.

Too often, ‘fantastic’ is used to describe stuff that fails to be imaginative, unreal or even excellent. Someone needs to step in and stop such horrific misappropriation of language on the taglines and trailers of today’s movies. ‘Fantastic’ needs to become fantastic again before we find ourselves in a standard-free dystopian future of no values. Because Hollywood is, no doubt, partly responsible for this crisis of hyperbole, it’s up to the movies to make it right.

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‘Excellent’ as a word is lucky enough to have a film benchmark in the form of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to ensure that the excellence within isn’t diluted by duff product. Likewise, with the arrival of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, hopefully we have a cinematic standard setter to safeguard against the further degradation of our endangered target term.

The fact that the screen take on the Roald Dahl tale revolves around anthropomorphic animals (for example, talking foxes, a dancing opossum and a kung-fu fighting rat) means that it conforms to the OED’s first meaning. Until badgers and rabbits start walking the streets in human clothes, Fantastic Mr. Fox meets the ‘unrealistic’ or ‘imaginative’ qualification, but what about the “extraordinarily good or attractive” bit? Luckily enough, Wes Anderson’s flick doesn’t let us down and debase ‘fantastic’ even further.

I like the way that Anderson has essentially taken the original story of the eponymous Fox and his battle with farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean and fashioned it so it’s like a furrier, stop-motion version of his typical material. Weirdly enough, when Roald Dahl meets The Royal Tenenbaums, it works.

The movie’s got all the charm and imagination of the classic children’s book with the eccentricity and dysfunctional family issues of Anderson’s other flicks. Though there may be irritated grunts from some quarters about very English (partly Norwegian) material being Americanised, Anderson’s offbeat edge doesn’t obliterate the quaint aspect of the original story.

It’s probably the stop-motion animation that really solidifies the spirit of Dahl in The Life Fantastic With Mr. Fox. With the homemade feel and handcrafted models moving through a movie soaked with that unmistakable indie vibe (as opposed to a torrent of soulless, superbombastic CGI sequences) Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn’t lose that childish ‘little world’ feel.

What’s more, it’s not like Wes Anderson has bastardised Dahl by making the celebration-of-stealing yarn into one of his ‘peculiar people’ dramas. The author’s excellent fables were always about hard-done-to individuals triumphing over adversity to find family and fulfil their dream in spite of the bigger, nastier human adult opposition.

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So far, so good for Fantastic Mr. Fox salvaging something from the semantic wreckage and raising the ‘fantastic’ flag against sloppy critics and crass marketing types, but what about the main star of the whole thing? Is Mr. Fox really fantastic? He may be voiced by George Clooney and have a nifty whistle-click trademark thing going on, but is he well and truly “extraordinarily good/attractive”?

It’s not cool that the chief character overlooks his own son, Ash (a confused cub with an inferiority complex voiced by Jason Schwartzman, in favour of übertalented nephew Kristofferson to exacerbate the father-son issues. It’s also not great that all his animal companions only end up becoming embattled refugees as a result of Mr. Fox’s private war with the three farmers. Purely because he feels emasculated if he’s not conducting rip-and-run raids on Boggis, Bunce and Bean stores, the lives of those nearest and dearest to him are totally uprooted. Paradoxically, our eponymous foxy hero is so hellbent on proving to everyone that he is ‘fantastic’, he only ends up damaging the extent to which he truly is.

If we are to get an overall moral message from the Fantastic Mr. Fox movie beyond “stealing from rich bad’uns for the good of the needy is A-OK”, it’s that the reassuring ideal underscoring so many indie films (like, say, Little Miss Sunshine and The Royal Tenebaums) is right on. Altogether everyone: “You are alright as you are.” In fact, you are fantastic.

Maybe I’m wrong to worry that the true worth of the word ‘fantastic’ is lost because of ill use. The truth – as pointed out in Fantastic Mr. Fox as the diverse creatures pool their talents together to beat Boggis, Bunce and Bean – is that everyone is unique. You don’t need to aspire to be fantastic, because you are already. As stated by Meryl Streep’s Mrs. Fox: “We’re different: we all are… but there’s something kinda fantastic about that, isn’t there?” Who needs self-help books? All the soul-stirring self-empowerment you need is being channelled into your psyche through stop-motion animated movies.

Dash, of The Incredibles, reckons saying that everyone is special (or, indeed, fantastic) “is another way of saying no one is”, but only if you’re pessimistically viewing the glass as half-empty. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox has that glass half-full and holding Bunce’s best cider (“It’s like drinking liquid gold.”). With such optimism and glowing sweetness emanating from the movie’s frames, I think it’s fair to say that the imagination and attitude of Roald Dahl’s original goes unsullied. Add to that the fact that everyone can go at peace with their own idiosyncrasy and what we’ve got with Fantastic Mr. Fox is, without doubt, truly fantastic.

James’ previous column can be found here. Our reviews of Fantastic Mr Fox are here and here.

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