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.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 10 Lessons

“We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

The movie title (the book is called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which the Tim Burton remake returned it to) is a somewhat misleading title, because much of it does not actually take place in the titular chocolate factory. Almost an hour passes (in my recollection) before Charlie and his lucky companions (and by extension the viewer) actually pass through those gilded gates. Rather than immediately place the characters into the magical world, the worldwide Golden Ticket contest is explored in depth. Basically, Wonka announces that he has hidden five Golden Tickets in his candy, and the finders will receive an all-day tour to the factory plus a lifetime supply of chocolate. Global hysteria and chaos follows.

In one scene, a preteen girl is pictured angrily pouting in a director’s chair, while her father pleads on bended knees for her patience, as his nut factory has morphed into a 24-7 chocolate bar unwrapping plant, so that she can “find” a Golden Ticket. So far, it isn’t going so well.

Her response? “Make ’em work nights!”

Of course, when the five kids and their parent of choice do finally get into the factory, that’s when things get really wacky. At first, Willy Wonka appears to be a friendly guy who is very pumped to show off his factory. However, after Augustus Gloop (a young German glutton) falls into the chocolate river and gets sucked up a pipe, the viewer starts to realize that something is off about this Wonka. Seldom does a movie character indulge in such schadenfraude (pleasure at another’s humiliation) as does this man. Soon, it becomes clear that the smart thing to do would be to take your child and find the nearest exit, so he or she wouldn’t wind up deformed and traumatized for life. But no one does.

Anyway, a big thanks to the movie (and to Gene Wilder, who recently passed away) for helping me learn the following:

1. Always read what you sign in full.

Imagine if the parents and/or kids had read the contract Wonka had them sign. (This lesson can also be found in “The Social Network.”)

2. Don’t sample anything without permission, no matter how tempting.

I’d like to think this movie is part of the reason I’ve never shoplifted, even when the little devil on my shoulder whispered that no one was around, and no one could possibly find out.

3. Chewing gum all day long is just gross.

Smile if you want, but to this day, I never chew gum. Also, adults (not kids) who have a permanent wad in their mouth disgust me. Thanks, Roald Dahl.

4. It’s okay not to pay your workers, as long as you give them unlimited chocolate.

Maybe because of my age or ethnic background, it took me years to grasp that Willy Wonka, by importing the merry Oompa Lompas was, when you got down to it, relying on slave labor, which is not exactly a moral thing to do. Even though, he rationalizes it in the movie by explaining that the Oompa Loompas were as miserable as hell in their country of origin, and that they are just overjoyed to be at the factory receiving in lieu of wages, unlimited chocolate, it’s problematic. Even though he employs them because they aren’t going to take his secret recipes to his rivals, it doesn’t appear a fair partnership from an adult viewpoint.

5. Sometimes in life you are being tested without your knowledge.

Oh yes. Moreover, even when you think you’re getting away with something, you may not actually be.

6. When you are elderly, most things in life are not worth getting out of bed for, although a visit to a chocolate factory always is.

Am I the only one who wanted to whack Grandpa Joe on the head with a bedpan because apparently, when your daughter is slaving her fingers to the bone doing laundry to support six people, that’s not a reason to get out of bed? But free chocolate is?

7. Sinister Nazi-vibe guys who try to bribe you may actually turn out to be the good guys.

Yep. Don’t be so fast to judge by appearances, children.

8. The best things in life happen when you aren’t looking for them.

Always a useful lesson to learn.

9. Your parents may be your own worst enemy.

Getting everything you want handed to you is a surefire way to develop zero empathy, which means people other than your parents will find you quite obnoxious. Growing up, I knew a kid exactly like Veruca Salt.  I have no idea how he turned out, but I suspect, if he managed to avoid being dumped down a garbage shoot or blown up into a blueberry, not too well.

10. Reverse psychology is an effective way to take revenge.

Notice how little Wonka, who is supposed to be in charge, bothers to try and stop the brats from self-destructing. It’s not too hard to figure out from the start he doesn’t care if they do so. In fact, you could argue that he wants them to get hurt. And this is the guy passing judgment on the kids’ parents for their childrearing skills.