There is a moment one-third into Wes Anderson’s 2009 animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox—based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, adapted for the screen by Noah Baumbach and the director—when the moral and mortal stakes of the story become starkly apparent. Mr. Fox has returned to his old life of crime, stealing from and inciting the wrath of three farmers. Those farmers retaliate with extreme violence, and Mr. Fox and his family are driven into hiding underground when their home is destroyed. Mrs. Fox takes Mr. Fox aside and lets him know just how much damage he has caused, and will cause if this continues.
Mrs. Fox: Twelve fox-years ago you made a promise to me . . . you would never steal another chicken . . . and I believed you. Why? Why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.
Mrs. Fox: You are also a husband and a father.
Mr. Fox: I’m trying to tell you the truth about myself.
Mrs. Fox: I don’t care about the truth about yourself. This story is too predictable. . . . In the end, we all die, unless you change.
Typically, at this point in a film with a narrative like this one, the viewer should be able to predict where the story is going: Faced with the consequences of his rash actions, the main character will ultimately choose reform and self-control in order to protect the ones he loves, moving from selfishness to selflessness and, in biblical language, from sin to repentance.
However, that is not what happens in Fantastic Mr. Fox. By the end of the film, not only will Mr. Fox not have repented of his sins, but his community, and even his wife, will have given up on calling him to repentance, and they will even join him in his sins. Mrs. Fox’s prophecy will prove false. No one dies for Mr. Fox’s sins, and so Mr. Fox sees no reason to change.
Sin might seem an awfully strong word to describe Mr. Fox’s actions. The heists are portrayed as fun and exhilarating. The audience naturally roots for Mr. Fox, and naturally dislikes the three farmers. It seems like the farmer’s revenge is so over-the-top evil as to make Mr. Fox’s thieving seem innocuous. Really, aren’t they overreacting just a little bit? Maybe so—but this does not minimize or excuse Mr. Fox’s actions. It is Mr. Fox who commits the first offense, and not because the three farmers had it coming or because his family was in poverty, but simply because he wanted to. Mr. Fox’s sin is a wanton one. “Thou shalt not steal” is a rather unambiguous injunction, so there’s really no sugar-coating it.
Yet sugar-coating sin is exactly what Mr. Fox does. He excuses his sin as if it were out of his control, claiming that all he can do is submit to its rule, or else be miserable. Mr. Fox tells his partner in crime, the possum Kylie, “How can a fox ever be happy without a, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken between its teeth?” He excuses his lies and theft by telling Mrs. Fox that it is all “because [he is] a wild animal.” This, for Mr. Fox, is the highest “truth about [him]self,” overriding all others. By nature, he is compelled to steal. For the sake of his happiness—note how he makes happiness essential to his existence—he must steal. Mr. Fox essentially chants the contemporary chorus: He is “born this way.”
The trouble is that Mr. Fox loves his sin. When the farmers first begin their onslaught of retribution, and Mr. Fox loses his tail, his home, and puts his wife, son, and nephew in danger, his dire circumstances do not create in him a hatred for sin. Of course, he hates the consequences of his sin. He complains about the pain of his lost tail. He feels the pain of how much money he will lose from buying a house in the three farmers’ neighborhood. He feels the pain of the lost trust between him and his wife. However, he fails to trace these symptoms back to the root cause, which is that his stealing was wrong. He is not sorry that he stole. Rather, he is sorry that his stealing has caused so much damage. There is a difference between the two. The former will lead to real change. The latter, as soon as the consequences are mitigated, will lead to continued wrong-doing.
In fact, even after Mrs. Fox has warned him that, if he does not repent, they will all die, and even after he is confronted by his lawyer, Badger, and the other animals who are endangered by his actions, Mr. Fox is not content to stop. Somehow he thinks that if he can steal even more from the farmers, they will be so embarrassed that they will give up hunting him, and his neighbors will be so impressed with his cunning that they will forget the wrong he has done against them. If he can circumvent or compensate for the consequences of his sin, he thinks he will not have to repent. Therefore, he convinces his neighbors, the very animals who minutes before wanted to discipline him, to join him in his sin and increase it.
This latest heist is a success. Mr. Fox confidently asserts that “We beat them,” and he and the others sit back to feast on their stolen goods. However, the next wave of retaliation is even worse than the first. The farmers flood the animals out of their underground lair, and kidnap Mr. Fox’s nephew. Badger turns on Mr. Fox again: “You still think we beat’em, Foxy?” (Of course, Badger fails to acknowledge his own guilt and responsibility.)
This time, it seems like Mr. Fox is finally confronted with the true nature and seriousness of his sin. He has another private talk with his wife.
Mr. Fox: Badger’s right. These farmers aren’t going to quit until they catch me. I shouldn’t have lied to your face. I shouldn’t have fallen off the wagon and started secretly stealing chickens on the sly. I shouldn’t have pushed these farmers so far and tried to embarrass them and cussed with their heads. I enjoyed it but I shouldn’t have done it. And now there’s only one way out. Maybe if I hand myself over and let them kill me, stuff me, and hang me over their mantelpiece . . . maybe they’ll let everyone else live.
Here, Mr. Fox acknowledges he has sinned against Mrs. Fox by lying to her and breaking his promise, and has sinned against everyone else by endangering their lives. He has a desire to sacrifice himself so others can survive—a hopeful sign of the possibility for real change.
The conversation continues, and Mr. Fox begins to get to the root of what drives him to steal.
Mrs. Fox: Oh, why did you have to get us into this, Foxy?
Mr. Fox: I don’t know. But I have a possible theory. I think I have this thing where I need everybody to think I’m the greatest, the quote-unquote “fantastic” Mr. Fox, and if they aren’t completely knocked out and dazzled and kind of intimidated by me then I don’t feel good about myself. Foxes traditionally like to court danger, hunt prey and outsmart predators, and that’s what I’m actually good at. I think at the end of the day, I’m just—
Mrs. Fox: I know. We’re wild animals.
Mr. Fox: Hmm . . . I guess we always were. I promise if I had all this to do over again, I’d have never let you down. It was always more fun when we did it together anyway.
There is both good and bad in Mr. Fox’s probing self-disclosure. Behind the external sin of stealing he finds the greater internal sins of vanity, pride, and the fear of man, manifested in his unhealthy desire to be “fantastic” in the sight of others. However, Mr. Fox also continues to abdicate personal responsibility by blaming his nature as a wild animal—and, this time, Mrs. Fox agrees with him. Moreover, he still does not hate the sin of stealing; it is still “fun” to him. He says he “enjoyed it” and “it was always more fun when we did it together.”
Even so, as Mr. Fox pulls out a white flag and climbs a ladder up to the surface so he can turn himself in, it seems he is following through on his desire to sacrifice himself for others’ safety. It seems Mr. Fox has accepted the cost of repentance, acknowledging his sin and facing the consequences rather than running from them.
But the narrative arc of the film again defies the expectations it itself sets up. Again, even when his sin and its destructive effects are obvious, Mr. Fox is not ready to let it go. He changes his mind and says, “My suicide mission’s been cancelled. We’re replacing it with a go-for-broke rescue mission.”
This “go-for-broke rescue mission” requires the cooperation of Mr. Fox’s entire community. He rallies them with a speech that identifies them as “a room full of wild animals.” He tells them his plan, if it succeeds, will help him “make it up to you for getting us into this crazy whatever-it-is.” This alternative to his “suicide mission” requires no repentance from him. Indeed, all it requires is for them to, like him, embrace and act upon their wildness. Tellingly, it is Mrs. Fox—who has acted as Mr. Fox’s conscience up until now—who is the first to sign up. The rest quickly follow. By the sheer force of his charm and dogged determination, Mr. Fox has worn down his critics and made his sin look attractive, even justifiable.
The film ends with the defiantly unrepentant Mr. Fox victorious. Mrs. Fox tells him, “You really are a kind of quote-unquote ‘fantastic’ fox.” His desire to impress others has not been repudiated by the harm it causes, but has actually been validated by the success it brings. As the camera pans out and the credits roll, the viewer discovers that Mr. Fox's latest target, a supermarket, is actually owned by the three farmers. Mr. Fox has not changed. And yet, despite what Mrs. Fox said would be so predictable, he still lives.
The plot of the film is cyclical: Mr. Fox steals. Mr. Fox feels the sting of the consequences of his stealing. Mr. Fox seems penitent at first. Mr. Fox steals again. This cycle occurs three times, but the film ends before the consequences phase can be repeated for a fourth time. This is what makes Mr. Fox’s un-repentance so fantastic, that what so often led to so much disaster could, in the end, be done without consequence.
The film’s position on Mr. Fox’s actions is ultimately ambiguous. Perhaps viewers are meant to think Mr. Fox is in the right because he survives to have the last laugh. Or, perhaps viewers are expected to know that Mr. Fox cannot outsmart his opponents forever. In any case, the film gives a fairly accurate representation of how the unrepentant respond when their sin and its consequences are revealed. The unrepentant excuse their sin. They hate the consequences and inconvenience caused by sin, but not sin itself. The unrepentant may even have moments of sorrowful recognition and speak of the seriousness of their sin with deep conviction—but, sadly, such things do not always lead to genuine repentance. The unrepentant may persist in their sin for so long that others may give up on warning them, and may even condone or join them in their sin. But, lest we point the finger at others we know who exhibit such characteristics, we must confess that, so often, we are the unrepentant ones. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a mirror to our own stubborn hardness of heart, and the options before us our clear: “In the end, we all die, unless [we] change.”
Special thanks to Ian 1, Ian 2, Emma, David, and Everlyn. In October of last year the six of us had a thought-provoking post-viewing discussion about Fantastic Mr. Fox, which inspired and shaped this essay.
Read the follow-up to this essay, "Lost Tails and Bruised Reeds," here.