A Look Back: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A quick question. When a filmmaker decides to improve upon the original source – such as a children’s book – is it really necessary to add dark psychological overtones? Specifically, does the target audience – in the case of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Wes Anderson, really care if an Oedipal slant is inserted? My guess is no, but like Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (also based on a Dahl book), it received it anyway. The good news is that Mr. Fox’s (George Clooney’s) conflicts with his eccentric son (Jason Schwartzman) don’t detract from the movie, even though adding a backstory about Willy Wonka being estranged from his dad was, in several senses, excess baggage.

Like classic fairy tales such as those from the appropriately named Grimm’s, many of Dahl’s children’s books feature horrifying parents or guardians. The titular Matilda (of the book and movie starring Mara Wilson) gets told by her used car salesman dad (Danny DeVito), “There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.” The beloved grandmother who teaches her grandson about “The Witches,” and loves him just the same after he’s enchanted into a mouse, however, is a exception. So too, are Mr. Fox and his wife (Meryl Streep) whose brood of youngsters is shrunk in the movie into one son, although soon a houseguest arrives, their overachieving nephew (Eric Chase Anderson). But there’s bigger problems than quasi-sibling rivalry afoot because Mr. Fox, now a journalist, still longs for his old life raiding nearby farms, particularly those belonging to the mean-spirited, dim bulb trio of Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). When circumstances force the Fox family out of their home at a tree base, and George, with his family and friends is forced into warfare, with the trio, it’s up to Mr. Fox to use every bit of his ingenuity to keep them all from starving.

Originally, Dahl had intended to have Mr. Fox solve his problems by having him burrow under and rob a supermarket. However, his American publishers were concerned that that would send the wrong message – that stealing is acceptable – so they fixed things by suggesting that Mr. Fox rob the original villains of the tale. Though they were afraid that Dahl would take offense, he actually loved the change and accepted it without argument. In the movie, ultimately, Mr. Fox winds up “borrowing” from a supermarket, but suitable revenge is also taken on the three bad guys. Capturing the magic of the original source is a challenge for any director wishing to bring a children’s book to the big screen, but the filmmakers do an excellent job here.