by Joel Bocko
“Fixing a Hole” is a new series on Wonders in the Dark whose sole purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on that site. The theme for Novembered is “Animated Animals.” Some spoilers are discussed below.
The Story of the Fox (1937/France/directed by Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz)
stars the voices of Claude Dauphin, Romain Bouquet, Sylvain Itkine, Marcel Raine
written by Jean Nohain, Antoinette Nordmann, Roger Richebe, Irene Starewicz, Wladyslaw Starewicz from Johann Wolfgang Goethe • photographed by Wladyslaw Starewicz • designed by Wladyslaw Starewicz • music by Vincent Scotto • animated by Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz
The Story: The royal lion seeks to punish Monsieur Renard (Mr. Fox) for eating his fellow creatures, yet the crafty animal tricks, manipulates, and fights his way out of every scrape.
“Animated Animals”: you’d be forgiven for picturing cute, wide-eyed little critters wandering through daisy fields and singing happy songs. Not so: this month there’s one cuddly creature (albeit too mute to sing), an amiable buffoon, a murderous yet still sympathetic monster, and then there’s Monsieur Renard (French for “fox”), the eponymous antihero of the brilliant stop-motion feature The Story of the Fox. Crafty, nasty, and carnivorous, Renard may have the least redeeming qualities of all the November beasts; unsurprisingly, he may also be the most human.
Watching as he assaults and semi-cannibalizes his fellow creatures, regarding us every now and then with an ambiguously conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, we titter nervously. We recognize we aren’t really compatriots in crime but rather spectators in a show enacted only for the fox’s own benefit. Renard has the gifted performer’s contempt for the audience – and we’d probably be his next victim were we onscreen ourselves. Not only the fox but his master are winking at us with raw, mischievous relish.
Wladyslaw Starewicz (who co-directed, co-wrote, and co-animated the film with his daughter) had been making tart and witty films about animals since the dawn of the cinema, and his works are a double delight for both eyes and mind. On the one hand, the incredibly charming puppetry – from the amorous insects of his debut The Cameraman’s Revenge to the distinctive devil’s ball sequence full of cavorting toys in The Mascot to the furry and feathered court intrigue of Story of the Fox – has its own distinctive, visceral charms. Somehow, seeing inanimate objects move of their own apparent accord will bring a smile to just about anyone’s face.
And that gleeful grin only spreads when the animals and toys of Starewicz’s world behave in recognizably human ways. Anthropomorphic exercises often tread an uncomfortable line between seeing their characters as human stand-ins and just plain animals. This is especially true when it comes to our heroes’ dietary habits. Story of the Fox faces this conundrum head-on by making its characters recognizably human animals who just happen to inconveniently eat one another.
The cannibalistic overtones, highlighted rather than elided, are even linked to sex: several times, romantic seduction lead not to the bedroom, but the kitchen. The film also bridges the gap between animal and human with cultural overtones – indeed, its types (the dull-witted peasant wolf, the groveling clerical rabbit, the double-talking bureaucratic badger, the preening tomcat minstrel) seem distinctively French, straight out of the tradition of provincial satire.
That said, the auteur was Russian and the finished soundtrack was financed by the Nazi German government. This lends a disturbing tenor to the movie’s nominal message: appease rather than resist your crafty opponents. However, this “if you can’t beat ‘em, have ‘em join you” finale is undercut by another instance of Starewicz’s deliciously saucy and silly humor – the baby fox’s diaper falls down several times, as if exposing this cynical conclusion as another act in the farce that preceded it. Then, quoting another animated animal, the naked little wretch spreads his limbs proudly, like a mini-emperor with no clothes, and bids us farewell: “That’s all, folks!”