Book Review: The Fantastic Mr Fox
The Fox and the Chocolate Factory
If you have kids, or were once a child in the US, you have very likely already heard of Roald Dahl, but you likely know him as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or possibly Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) because of the successful film adaptation starring Gene Wilder which is, for some reason, played on TV every year at Easter. I don't know why. It has nothing to do with Easter. But they still play it over and over and over. Anyway, the Wonka candy company is real, and we're an obese consumerist culture, so if you want your Nerds or Pixi Styx or Sweet Tarts or whathave you, and you do, you owe Dahl.
Dahl wrote several other books for children that were later adapted to film, but none of them seem to have the staying power of the Chocolate Factory. Not even a second adaptation of that book could dislodge the original's place in the pop culture zeitgeist. I read a few of these as a child myself, like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, but I hadn't heard of this one until recently, when I just happened upon it in the children's section while shopping. After I laid eyes on the book, I had a vague memory of some movie trailer that I think I saw a few years back, but I don't think it did too well at the box office, because it hadn't even stuck in my memory. So let it be known that I haven't watched the movie, so I'm going into the book blind.
Mr Fox and Children
Amputees and Shooting Victims
I absolutely adored this book. The story moves fast enough to keep even the youngest child's attention, and the illustrations are sketchy and colorful and imply movement themselves. The characters are relatable and often adorable, with the baby badgers and baby foxes and whatnot. Mr and Mrs Fox look more like weasels than Foxes though, though in Mr. Fox's case, that might be because he loses his tail early in the book.
The story revolves around a family of foxes, Mr & Mrs Fox, and their four unnamed children who are generally just referred to collectively as "The Children" or "The Little Foxes". The genders of them are also ambiguous except for the eldest, who is presumably a boy because Mr Fox calls him 'son'. This family lives in a fox den on a hill in a wood overlooking three farms. Every day Mr Fox would ask Mrs Fox what she wanted for dinner, and then would go get it. For example, if she said she wanted chicken, he'd go down, break into the chicken farm, and steal them, then bring them home for his family. The family got along fairly well in this way, until the three farmers, the villains of the story, got tired of losing their livestock, and decided to kill Mr. Fox.
I like a story that doesn't sugercoat the world for children. This is how farmer's actually deal with pests. They don't DIsney-fy it, they straight up take hunting rifles, track him to the foxhole, and wait for him to come out. When he does, he notices just in time to avoid death, but he takes a bullet to the tail and it's blown off in a bloody mess. He makes it back down to the den screaming about how bad it hurts, and his wife licks it to disinfect it. 0ne of the kids tells him it'll grow back, and he has to tell his child that it won't.
He lost a limb and it's just gone forever now. Because sometimes, in life, that happens. It happens to humans too. Sometimes kids have parents who are missing limbs because they were shot off, and, just like it didn't kill or completely defeat Mr. Fox, it won't kill or completely defeat the adult in their life. Representation in media of people, of all kinds, is important. If children can see themselves and their family reflected in the world around them, in books or on TV, it helps to normalize their life experience. That's part of the reason I really like Star Wars. Darth Vader may be a villain, but he's also a quadruple amputee who successfully runs the military for a galactic empire. He isn't even defeated, he (spoilers) voluntarily gives up that job to save his child.
I just think that children respond better to stories that actually make that kind of gritty, realistic sense. Kids know more and can take more than many people give them credit for. If you go back and read the original Grim's Fairy Tales, or Anderson's Fairy Tales, you'll find that children's authors once trusted their audience with far more complex themes than many people are now comfortable with, not just things like amputation and injury, but life and death, complex relationships, and stories that do not necessarily have a happy ending.
This one, (spoiler alert) does have a happy ending, but not until many of the characters near death, from gunfire, from overwork and exhaustion, from starvation, and the threat of poison, though the intended victim of the poisoning doesn't seem particularly concerned with it, because he's drunk at the time that he learns about his fate. I don't want to give away the entire story, as it is a children's book, and you can probably get through it in an hour, even reading out loud. It's a great book to read to your younger child, particularly if you're good at doing different voices.
It also has a great message about teamwork, though... the different species are working together to steal, so it's kind of a mixed message. In fact, Mr. Badger brings this up. He straight up asks Mr. Fox if he feels bad about robbing the humans, and Mr. Fox responds that he has to feed his children or they will literally die. They haven't eaten in three days at that point, and that his moral responsibility to his children is more important than his desire not to steal things. Mr Fox doesn't really treat this as a difficult decision, but Mr. Badger does. Mr. Badger seems to have a bit more of a conscious than Mr. Fox, and serves as a sort of moral compass for the raiding party.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and the younger kids really like it. I think that once you get into middle school it might lose it's charm, it's more the kind of thing that one would read to, or give to, grade school kids. It's cute, but also kind of hard core, with life and death stakes. It's incredibly difficult, at least in the US, to get little boys to read. The leading consensus as to why this is, is because most children's books, particularly chapter books, are written with a female audience in mind. But this book is firmly unisex. It's about cute fuzzy animals, who are being attacked. There are characters of all genders, though the main character is a male. The lead couple, Mr & Mrs Fox, have an excellent marriage relationship (though the previews for the movie seem to have changed that aspect of the story. Which is odd.). Basically, this is a good book for any young child. It's easy enough to read, has nice illustrations, and a story that will actually hold their attention.
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