The Action Scene is a column exploring the construction of action set pieces, but it also considers “scene” in the sense of field or area: “action” as a genre and mode that spans different cultures and historical periods. By examining these two levels in tandem—one oriented toward aesthetic expression, the other toward broader contexts and concepts—this series aims to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is, in many ways, the perfect Wes Anderson film—which is to say, it is the perfect film about a certain idea of perfection predicated on a tight sense of control. By this point, the filmmaker’s meticulous visual style has become familiar to the point of cliché: frames within frames; compartments within compartments; hard lines and straight edges; characters and objects ostentatiously arranged for the camera like figurines in a diorama. With not a hair out of place and no “i” left undotted, Anderson’s oeuvre expresses a visual fussiness that is so pronounced and unwavering as to be intensely self-reflexive (and, in the matter-of-factness of its self-reflexivity, also strangely sincere. Film scholar James MacDowell has, in a somewhat different vein, discussed how the interplay between irony and sincerity lies at the heart of the director’s films). In American cinema, perhaps only Alfred Hitchcock can approach the fastidiousness of Anderson’s style, but even the master’s most tightly calibrated works never evinced so total and overt an obsession with precision.
Adapted from the 1970 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox sports all of the director’s usual stylistic tics but adds an element until-then absent from his filmography: animation. Whereas, in previous films, the reach of Anderson’s scrupulous hand stopped at the stubborn contingency of the “natural” world—the “real,” unpredictable movements of grass in the wind, the physical asymmetries of flesh-and-blood actors—here, the affordances of stop motion reduce such contingency to a minimum. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson can mold every whisker, wart, and wrinkle to the exact proportion that he wants before clicking the camera; “not a hair out of place” becomes literal. Furthermore, in fully displaying the handmade texture of its animal puppets as well as what journalist Julian Sancton calls the “herky-jerkiness” of the stop-motion apparatus (as a result of doubling every frame so that footage becomes in effect 12 frames per second rather than the standard 24, onscreen movement possesses a juddery quality), the film makes sure we never forget how it was constructed. If the aesthetic of perfectionism in Anderson’s live-action films unfolds at the level of objects, the one in Fantastic Mr. Fox (as well as his later film, Isle of Dogs ) seems to occur at the level of matter itself. Moreover, it is matter that has been manifestly molded, retaining the trace of the artist’s hand in such a way where the film becomes not just about the perfectionist impulse but an index of it in action.
This word, “action.” In terms of genre, it’s the raison d'être for this column, but, more broadly, it suggests concreteness, dynamism, and change. It’s a word not necessarily opposed to perfectionism; perfectionism in general, after all, often involves actively polishing details, micromanaging affairs, and so on. That said, in its suggestion of transition and transformation, “action” places tension on perfectionism’s affinity for the static and the timeless. Various writers have noted the way Anderson’s dollhouse visual style channels the aesthetic history of the miniature, an object that, in the way it presents diminutive simulacra of real-life objects and milieus, embodies and expresses an attempt to contain the uncontainable, to make larger systems and structures physically and cognitively graspable. As Susan Stewart, in her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, puts it, the miniature creates “a type of transcendent time which negates change and the flux of lived reality.” From Max Fischer in Rushmore (1998) to the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) to the eponymous patriarch in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s worlds abound with (usually male) characters attempting to systematize such flux, to assert their managerial influence over a milieu wild with repressed emotion, unruly violence, and the vicissitudes of life and history.
And yet, the “action” of containment can never fully eliminate the “action” of the contained. As Newton’s third law teaches us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The greater the sense of control, the greater the sense of pushback, of impending rupture. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the biggest rupture occurs in the film’s climactic showdown, in which the protagonist Mr. Fox and his ragtag crew attempt to flee a sinister orchard owner’s prison-like compound. Upon turning a corner, they find the exit blocked by a small army of gun-toting farmers. As leaves swirl like rolling tumbleweeds and the sky darkens symbolically, Anderson evokes the trope of the western standoff, redoubling the threat of eruptive violence already inherent in the film’s visual perfectionism. Lest the culminating significance of this moment escapes us, we are given a shot of Mr. Fox epically reciting the offenses perpetrated against him and his family, with each additional item accompanied by an emphatic dolly-in toward the fox’s fierce visage.
Then, a barrage of gunfire snaps the tension, shredding into wood chips the row of crates behind which our heroes are hiding. This moment is astonishing because it introduces an explosive, jagged irregularity into Anderson’s immaculate visual scheme: where everything from mise-en-scène to camera movement more or less adheres to the spatial logic of the Cartesian mathematical grid (vertical, horizontal, and straight ahead into depth), the disintegrating wood sprays in all directions, yielding a motley mass of splinters. The messiness of this moment gestures toward real-world physics, evoking the way actual bullets would tear apart cheap wood with uncalculated abandon.
It’s true that even this chaotic burst of violence remains visibly in thrall to the mechanics of stop motion. The flying wood may capture some of reality’s randomness, but its handmade materiality and “herky-jerky” movement point to the animator who painstakingly arranged the “random” trajectory of each stray splinter. And yet, next to Anderson’s more static scenes, in which the intensity of the perfectionist aesthetic means that repressed chaos and dynamism are present only by implication, the degree of movement on display here is exhilarating—and, in some ways, even more so because of the lingering stasis within the kineticism. By continuing to emphasize the “stop” part of “stop-motion,” Anderson hinders smooth movement but, nonetheless, shows movement triumphing anyway—victory made sweeter through the experience of effort, the overcoming of obstacles.
In merging action cinema’s concentrated bursts of movement and collision with stop motion’s juddering rhythm, this scene presents the experience of the static and moribund jerking to life, seeming to spin free of the animator’s influence and, thematically, to signal the shaking-off of emotional shackles that have been keeping our characters from flourishing. Indeed, it is in this scene that we see Mr. Fox’s son, Ash, coming into his own, acquiring a newfound confidence in his body after an entire film of feeling “different.” Where prior attempts at being “athletic” in a bid to win his father’s approval had produced only failure, agitation, and resentment, here, newfound serenity begets extraordinary physical grace. As enemy fire pops around him, the free-running fox cub bounds invincibly through the fray, his buoyant parkour made subtly more poignant by the slight judder of the animation. Narratively, this moment is pure empowerment, a virtual deux ex machina in which a character’s sudden about-face delivers our heroes from certain death. Aesthetically, however, stop motion’s visual stutter lends Ash’s ascendancy a subtle sense of exertion, of pushing past and rising above, of the passage from paralysis to freedom.