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Astute Observations: FANTASTIC MR. FOX and Freud

Will Schiffelbein

by: Will Schiffelbein
June 21st, 2010

Editor's Note: I acknowledge that several of these contentions are somewhat outside the mainstream interpretation of the film. I also acknowledge that Wes Anderson would most like balk at this interpretation. Also, please note that this movie was one of my favorites of 2009. As such, I felt the need to hash out some of my thoughts regarding it. Any comments and arguments are encouraged.

In addition, spoilers for FANTASTIC MR. FOX follow.

It's often easy to write off movies intended for children as though they don't have any philosophical relevance. Just because these films lack broad overarching themes that encompass the film as a whole doesn't mean they don't have something to say. FANTASTIC MR FOX is one of those movies, where a profound message is subtly hiding beneath the facade of a family friendly flick.

FANTASTIC MR FOX, Wes Anderson's first foray into the world of stop-motion animation, is first and foremost a story about family. The protagonist of the story, Mr. Fox, is struggling with his role as the head of the family; his role as a father, and a husband. He's currently at the point in his life where he begins to question the choices he's made and the direction he's headed. In short, he's due for a mid-life crisis.

The second interlocking circle of the trinity, Mrs. Fox, is also faced with a struggle. She's always been sure of her lot in life, but she's constantly reminded of her husband's confusion. She's been given a son, Ash, who is an enigma in more ways than one. She's aware that her husband harbors relative discontent for his son's lack of athletic ability and that he's...different.

And third lies Ash, the son. Far from the prodigal heir that Mr. Fox wished for his family, Ash is "different." His struggle lies in battles with the father. He's not the whackbat pro that his father was, he can't seem to get anything right, and he makes a huge splash when he dives. He doesn't know karate. And did I mention he's different? However, all of this lies at the surface level.

Peering deeper into the film reveals the father, Mr. Fox, is the tangible actualization of the "no," and that Ash's mission for retrieving his father's tail is an object cathexis with a specific aim.

Freud is often thrown out too early in contemporary psychology. He's dismissed as placing too much emphasis on sex, the Oedipal complex, and pissing off feminists. While all of this may be true, he was pretty damn right about a lot of stuff. Notably, his treatment of the father. There's a reason that all the best cowboys, and every character on LOST have daddy issues- we all have them, whether you know it or not.

Fathers represent what our libido hates most, the ego. The ego halts our id. It prevents us from running rampant, murdering and pillaging everything in our path. Though we want to, deep down, we also realize that it just isn't practical to do so. That's our ego talking. But damn, does this piss off our ids. However, rather than manifesting itself as anger or rage, it most often makes its distaste known through guilt and shame.

Men hate their fathers simply because they instill this shame and guilt into them. An example outside the Ash/Mr. Fox dialectic lies in the connection between Petey and his father, Bean. Petey is a musician, and a pretty clever one at that if you ask me. And yet, his father spends his days ordering him around. He demands everything ranging from tractors to wrangling up all the combined workers of the three local farms. Even when Petey writes a song that occurs near the middle of the film, his father continues to damn him to a life of subservience. He wrote a bad song, and he can't ever live outside his father's shadow.

Ash feels guilty for not being able to live up to his father's glory. He constantly lives in his shadow, wallowing in shame. He leaps at every opportunity to satisfy his father's desires, but fails at every attempt. However, his failure lies deep within his nature. Few men are ever their fathers. And Ash is definitely not his father.

Because he's gay.

I've had this discussion with plenty of people, from all different walks of life. Despite watching the film 5+ times now, each with new people, none have come to the same conclusion as myself; it completely mystifies me. I can't view the film with any other lens, except to assume that Ash is homosexual. Much of his frustration comes from his attempts to assert his masculinity in the traditional sense: athletics, tests of manhood, danger, bloodsport.

And yet he only finds failure. He spends his days constantly trying to conform to the heteronormativity of the picture. He's constantly competing with Kristofferson, Ash's main competition for the affection of his father. While Ash doesn't show any outward heterosexual movement toward members of the opposite sex, Kristofferson does. He finds himself in a relationship with Ash's lab partner after very little effort. And yet, I don't believe Ash is jealous of Kristofferson's position with a girlfriend; rather, he's simply jealous of how easily Kristofferson conforms to the expectations of Mr. Fox. The jealousy doesn't come from Kristofferson stealing the girl Ash likes, but instead it comes from Kristofferson stealing the love of Ash's father.

Freud's contribution to the field of psychoanalysis, besides the relatively important fact that he founded it, was the idea of repression. Shame and guilt are manifested by repression of desires, desires which are the manifestation of the id. Ash's sexuality stems from the id, which is repressed by the external "no" -- his father. To say that a lack of ego or an external no would be better than shame or guilt would be a misinterpretation of Freud and this argument. Rather, it's the repression of healthy sexuality (such as Ash's) that leads to an unhealthy amount of shame or guilt.

What is perhaps most interesting about Anderson's treatment of Ash's sexuality is his uneven attitude towards it. Throughout the film, he stresses the importance of Ash's conformity to the traditional values of society- follow in your father's footsteps, do well in sports, get the girl. Eventually, Ash does conform to societal expectations when he undertakes a Steve McQueen style rescue for his father's tail. Ash sees this as his rite of passage and his success with the mission is what sparks my confusion because it seems to conflict with the easy interpretation of the film's message and theme.

Ash's fixation with recovering his father's tail is the prime example of Freud's object cathexis. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud realizes that human beings often charge objects or ideas with an inordinate amount of libidinal energy. In the same way that Christians take communion or The Dude cherishes that rug that really tied the room together, Ash places a high degree of importance on an inanimate object- his father's tail. It takes on a special relevance. To Christians, the bread and wine is no longer bread or wine. To The Dude, the rug represents the uncoolness of the world. And to Ash, his father's tail represents his father's acceptance of him.

I find myself at a loss to accept Anderson's theme of accepting who you are and acknowledging the animal inside. Instead, his film is more about conformity. It's about accepting and enforcing traditional values; the film radiates with family values, but only in the Judeo-Christian, nuclear fashion. God forbid Ash reject social norms and accept who he truly is. Despite his attempts to overcome his sexuality throughout the film, the final scene serves as a reminder that he is different. And rather than be proud of that difference, he should hide it and just be like everyone else.

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  • drewtinnin

    Great contribution to the site, man! After reading this, I'm starting to think I might be gay…ha.

    I haven't seen FOX yet, but the way you describe the character, I'm surprised more people don't see the parallel. Maybe the animation masks the undertones…

  • http://www.willschiff.com Will Schiff

    It's both subtle and glaringly obvious. It's easily one of my favorite films from last year. I've watched it about six times now. It's incredibly clever and hilarious. Definitely worth a watch if you can find the time!

  • Mary_meeps

    I thought he was gay and my friends thought I was crazy.

  • Hollister_element

    I disagree. Animals are not perverted like people. God made animals and people to be with the opposite sex. Man and Woman. Why do homosexual men dress like women and/or be emotional like women and play the part of a women with another man. That itself says that only Man and Woman are made to be with each other in marriage. Not the other way around . Homosexuality is sin and wrong.

  • Brittany Laura

    Why do you immediately correlate clumsy uncoordinated failure with ‘homosexual’? That’s just a bit of a strange jump, considering that the possibility that Ash is simply not athletic and his strength is in intelligence and sharp wit rather than athletic skill and the references to his being ‘different’ are because the rest of the family is quite naturally agile (they are, after all, foxes), is a lot more likely. 

    Unlike the twat below me, I’m not religious and I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, I just feel as though you’ve run with a very far-fetched idea.

  • FrankBunny

    [SPOILERS] 
    The fact that Ash is gay is exactly what I thought as well, and the fact that he becomes an ‘athlete’ in the end also confused me; perhaps that was Anderson’s intention. Or, maybe the juxtaposition of becoming comfortable as Mr Fox’s son (that touching scene when he cries after his dad’s talk), along with becoming an athlete, was Anderson’s attempt at breaking a barrier between homosexuality and conformity. Clearly, Ash became comfortable with himself towards the end, and this confidence resulted in his father’s pride and his ability as an athlete. Whatever the case may be, this movie was unexpectedly brilliant! I was expecting something good, as it had Wes Anderson’s work done on it, but it was just strangely moving and reminiscent of childhood. Seriously, I haven’t been affected by a movie to this level in a very, very long time!

  • FrankBunnt

    Actually, just as an aside; the indications for me that Ash was gay were pretty simple, ie. Wearing “girl’s clothes” (although I fail to see how a cape and pants tucked into socks qualify as girl’s clothes. Perhaps in Anderson-land). Also, when his father references an unborn boy, and Ash corrects him, “or girl.” The general discomfort around Kristofferson was also a bit of a pointer. P.S: The girl’s clothes and reference to an unborn girl aren’t meant in a homophobic way. I’m gay myself, so I’m pretty sure I’m immune from that accusation. 

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