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Monday, December 07, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (The)

When I was growing up my Uncle Cletus had a pet fox he called Charmin (so dubbed because, like the toilet tissue of the same name, he truly was “squeezably soft”). As a thirteen year old I was sent to spend a couple of weeks with Uncle Cletus while my parents went off on  a cruise without me, a time that would eventually be known by me as “That Unfortunate Era of Uncondomed Lust” which resulted in my younger sister Clamentine’s joining our family. So while my parents were off playing Chutes & Ladders of a Certain Kind, I was foisted onto a shirt-tail relative of last resort to look after my well-being, or at least make sure I didn’t kill accidentally myself during their absence.  I’m pretty sure that was the best they could expect from a man like Cletus anyway.  I’d never met him before and wasn’t sure how he gained the title “Uncle” because I was fairly certain he wasn’t my father or mother’s brother, but when you are thirteen that hardly matters if the guy has a spirited red fox living in his house.

Uncle Cletus said that he found Charmin as a pup alone in the woods after his mother had been caught in a trap. Cletus never said that it was his trap, but the fact that he wore a  bright orange fur hat with a fox-tail dangling down his back always made him suspect in my book. Maybe he did it to help Charmin feel more at home growing up, but I doubt Cletus had any thought that went that deep. More likely he did it to cover his bald head and give that hairless dome a place to hide under since he had a head with enough bumps and ridges across it to make a Klingon proud. You’d think a guy would feel those things under his hair before he would take a razor to his scalp, but Cletus wasn’t quite that self-observant. After all, he lived in a house where the plumbing was as much a promise that could be broken at a moment’s notice as not, and it practically took a hand-held GPS device to navigate the piles of “collectibles” that clogged the paths between my guest room and the kitchen.  Not that I cared. I was too distracted by Uncle Cletus and his love-connection to the little red fur-ball. He treated Charmin more like a favorite son than a pet. Charmin followed Cletus everywhere he went and slept at night curled up on the empty pillow across from my uncle’s head. Like a loyal dog, Charmin would wag his bushy tail whenever Cletus came through the door and he could do any number of tricks, from simply rolling over to doing an impressive back flip on command. He was also great at burrowing into the furniture, leaving stuffing from the couches and chairs strewn all across the living room floor, a tiny inconvenience Uncle Cletus didn’t seem to notice since his idea of tidiness lay somewhere between what you’d expect to find in a Pakistani ghetto or in the camp of 
“I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.”

Most of my two weeks with Cletus I felt like all I wanted to do was scream “I might be a celebrity one day. Get Me Out of Here!” not just because of Charmin’s penchant for using the inside of the piano as his personal toilet but mostly because my uncle seemed a bit… off. Well, maybe he was a LOT off. Besides having a fox as a best friend he tended to refer to a stuffed deer’s head over his mantle as “My lovely wife, Martha.” I think it was on my sixth day there that I noticed the head was missing from its spot on the wall and when I asked Cousin Latreen about it he said Cletus and Martha always went out for long walks along the beach at sunset. It was how they kept the romance alive in their relationship.  Just about then they returned and for the first time I noticed that the head was sporting both blush and lipstick, which couldn’t have been easy to apply since deer tend not to have lips, at least not Angelina Jolie quality lips. I knew then that it was going to be a very scary eight more days.

Fortunately, nothing remotely as awkward befalls the title character in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is not to say that Mr. Fox doesn’t have problems of his own. This foxy gentleman, voiced by the perpetually suave George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats), wears stylish business suits and ties even if he does forgo shoes, which somehow makes sense if you are a wild animal. That’s another bit of Mr. Fox’s unique charm. He may be a classy “Vulpes vulpes” as he likes to point out, but he is also a wild animal and can channel those beastly traits on a moment’s notice. Let’s just say that dinner time resembles something akin to my dreams of Pizza Night with the San Francisco 49s. It’s every man for himself, and fingers are considered fair game if they get between a player and his pie.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on a short story by Roald Dahl, author of James and the Giant Peach as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and a multitude of other well-known children’s books, so you know this sly critter has quite the good pedigree. And he knows it too. Mr. Fox is definitely not lacking in the self-esteem department. He exudes confidence as the best chicken-stealer in the valley until he promises his (then future) wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep; Julie and Julia) to go straight and get a reputable job. Sure enough, Mr. Fox becomes a columnist for the local newspaper, although I used to have a similar job and I’m not sure I’d call that a “reputable” career. It’s like calling a whore a “social marketing technician.” Anyway, Mr. Fox manages to stay on the straight and narrow for a long time, but eventually he and his pal, an opossum named Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky; The Darjeeling Limited) can’t help themselves, and they are once again rustling chickens, alcoholic cider and frozen foods on the down-low from the three meanest human farmers in the area. As you might expect, trouble ensues.

Naturally,  Mrs. Fox is oblivious ~ at first ~ to her husband’s misdeeds, and her concerns about his past are simply a matter of keeping him alive to be a good husband and a father to their son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman; Funny People). Ash could use some of his father’s assurance and a lot of his Dad’s love since he suffers from very low self-worth. He is neither an athlete nor a charmer like his old man, and if things weren’t bad enough, his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) comes for an extended visit, and he is adept at everything from martial arts to Olympic diving. Kris is also the foxy guy all the girls at their school prowl the halls to date, leaving Ash always feeling (and being) second-rate. If I was a psychiatrist I might want to ponder the fact that director Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) hired his own brother to voice this role. I’m sure I could keep the Andersons on the couch for years sorting all this out, but that’s a whole other column.

The star-packed cast, including Bill Murray (Zombieland) as a badgering badger named Badger, Willem Dafoe (Daybreakers) as a dirty rat also called Rat, and a ferret dubbed Skip, the boys’ Wakbat coach (Owen Wilson; Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian), help make the film a virtual “Guess Who?” for fans trying to figure out the celeb’s identity by voice alone. For those not so interested in that aspect of the movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox presents a colorful and exciting enough tale about family, honesty, loyalty, larceny and redemption to keep most anyone entertained throughout its 87 minutes. While the lessons in the film may be a tad obscure (Is it still okay to steal as long as it is from ugly or mean people?), kids are less inclined to dig that deep and leave the philosophizing to the adults, who will be more likely enjoying the retro look of the movie, done entirely with stop-action photography in the style of Art Clokey’s 1950’s tv series “Gumby” or Will Vinton’s claymation features such as 1986’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.

I’m sure my Uncle Cletus would have loved The Fantastic Mr. Fox if he was still with us today. Unfortunately, he was bit in the throat by a wild animal while he slept one night and bled out by morning. My parents grieved a long time about that because they figured that whatever creature snuck into the house and killed Cletus must have gobbled up poor Charmin at the same time because he has never been seen again. For the next three years Cousin Latreen wore his lucky pork chops around his neck and wandered the woods behind Cletus’ house hoping to coax his “Little Brother” to come home. Apparently it became too much for Latreen because one day he simply walked out of the house and into the woods with a fresh necklace of pork chops around his neck and never was seen again. At least he had something to eat on his trip to who-knows-where. Too bad he forgot the applesauce to go along with the chops... but what can you expect? He’s Cletus’ son. 

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