Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I have written about Roald Dahl and his books before, but the Wes Anderson adaptation of Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox is up for a few Oscars this weekend, and I'll take any chance I get to reminisce about all the hours I spent reading Roald Dahl as a kid.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is set in the English countryside where Mr. and Mrs. Fox live in a comfortable burrow with their kits. Their comfort is, in a large way, the result of Mr. Fox's prolific thievery. Not far from the hill the Foxes live under, three farmers - Boggis, Bunce and Bean - have large, sprawling farms that provide (unintentionally) lovely meals for Mr. Fox and his family.

But, paradise can't last forever and after a foiled heist that results in Mr. Fox's tail being shot off as he dives into his burrow, the farmers decide to exact some revenge. And so they set up a siege around the Foxes' burrow, intending to starve them out. But rather than give in, Mr. Fox decides to fight back the only way he knows how: to dig deeper into the hill in the hopes of eventually finding a way out. When the farmers discover Mr. Fox's tactics, they too decide to dig, first with shovels and then with bulldozers. Predictably, it doesn't take long for the hill to be reduced to a crater.

Under the hill, the Foxes keep digging. Eventually they run into a group of other burrowing animals who have also been caught in the siege: badgers, moles, rabbits, etc. All the animals are starving and intensely unhappy with the situation Mr. Fox has forced them into. But, he isn't fantastic for nothing, and after assembling all the animals for a feast, he and his children tunnel off in the direction of the farms.

With the three farmers well occupied by their digging siege, Mr. Fox is able to tunnel right up under their storerooms and simply pick and choose: a goose here, a duck there and apple cider all around. And so it all ends well, with the animals feasting underground and the farmers fuming above.

When you read Fantastic Mr. Fox as a kid, the appeal is the borderline-rude language and Mr. Fox's hilarious antics. Even reading now, it's hard not to laugh at Dahl's descriptions of the farmers. But now (and this may be my English degree talking), a lot of this story seems to be about habitat destruction - and I don't think that's too much of a stretch. Although the animals come out alright in the end, they do nearly starve because their home is being destroyed by humans.

In his memoirs (Boy and Going Solo) Dahl seems very nostalgic for a simpler time, when farms were local and open to the public and most digging was done by hand with a shovel. And for all the lightness of Fantastic Mr. Fox, I think a lot of that nostalgia seeps in.

And really, that's what makes Dahl worth revisiting years after you've left the target audience age. He was always able to write on more than one level. He knew what kind of language would appeal to kids and how to use it weave a story that would make kids laugh and their parents think (and laugh, too). If his stories were less complex (even the apparently simple ones) they would never have been so entertaining, and if they hadn't been so memorably enjoyable we would never have returned to them the way we continue to.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
by Roald Dahl
First published in 1970 (cover image shown from Knopf Books for Young Readers edition)

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