Late Night Research and Freaky Animal Puppets
Originally posted on April 23, 2012 on English Matters: The UTA Department of English Blog.
During a round of late night research several weeks ago, I somehow ended up on a Wikipedia page listing all feature length stop motion animation films including The Tale of the Fox, which drew my attention for reasons that I’ve since forgotten (I was quite tired at the time). Ever the committed, credible scholar, I took my Wikipedia research to YouTube. Surprisingly, the entire film had been posted in six 10-11 minute videos. After the opening credits of the first video, I was confronted by one of the freakiest images I’ve seen in a while: a monkey puppet wearing glasses and a robe. His movements, particularly his curling lips that exposed his teeth and flapping tongue, seemed something straight out of my nightmares. (I’ve always been slightly creeped-out by audio-animatronics ever since a fateful ride on Disney World’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the age of two, and I’m still unable to watch Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for more than five minutes before the goblin puppets make my skin crawl). But after watching the first three minutes of The Tale of the Fox, I was fairly certain I had to write about it. By the end of Part 3, I was sold. This was the most brilliantly weird, disturbing, and inspired thing I had seen in a long time. Here were animal puppets that looked, not like real live animals, but like taxidermied animals dressed up and brought to “life.” Unlike the anthropomorphic animals of the Disney films I grew up on, these animal puppets were being subjected to all manner of bodily indignities that left them mutilated, scarred, or stripped to mere bones. I knew I had to translate my frequent exclamations of, “What the ****?” and subsequent uneasy laughter into an insightful academic analysis. My obsession had begun.
Ladislas Starewitch (whose name has seemingly endless combinations of spellings) was originally an entomologist at a Natural History museum in Lithuania. In 1910, after an ill-fated attempt to shoot a short film of two stag beetles fighting (the beetles were uncooperative, fell asleep under the bright lights, and just flat-out died), Starewitch realized the dead beetles made far better actors than when they were alive and shot his film using stop motion. Many of Starewitch’s early short films utilized the preserved bodies of dead insects and birds as stop-motion puppets (See Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales which can be viewed for free either on Amazon Prime Instant Video or, of course, YouTube).
Made between the years 1929 and 1930 and released in 1937 (eight months before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) is, according to Starewitch, his masterwork. The Tale of the Fox is an adaptation of the medieval fable of Reynard the Fox, basing its story on the 18th century version by Goethe. As I alluded to earlier, what both fascinates and repulses me about this film is its portrayal of animal bodies. While the puppets in The Tale of the Fox aren’t real dead foxes, wolves, cats, monkeys, lions, hares, etc., the puppets were made of deer skin, among other materials. As evidenced by the photo below of Starewitch surrounded by some of his puppet creations, the puppets (some of them are quite large) were created with an extraordinary level of detail and craftsmanship.
Photo Source: (http://ikono.org/2011/07/ladislas-starevich-and-his-amazing-insects/)
In The Tale of the Fox, Starewitch has painstakingly re-creates animal bodies with astonishing detail; the animal puppets are capable of intricate and widely varied facial expressions and almost all posses unnervingly realistic mouths (lips, teeth, tongues, and even drool). But these re-created animal bodies don’t remain pristine and untouched. The film is full of lost tails, threats of flaying, animal skulls mounted on walls as trophies, multiple brutal beatings of animals by club-wielding human puppets (this is their only function in the film), and the eviscerated body of a mother hen whose chick plaintively cries, “Mama,” at the mother’s bare skull.
Yet, there’s an honesty to this film that is lacking in many other anthropomorphic animal films. It doesn’t hide the animal body, living or dead, from viewers. It refuses to ever let the viewer entirely forget that these puppets represent physical animal bodies. This contrasts with the more recent stop motion fox film, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). After viewing Starewitch’s film, Anderson’s film and its animal puppets (which share a similar look with The Tale of the Fox puppets) seem more cartoonish. The animals in Fantastic Mr. Fox can be electrocuted (the standard flashing of their skeletons occurs) but are apparently unharmed. When animals do die in the film, their eyes are replaced with X’s which mark the only trace of death on their bodies. The dead chickens just look like they’re sleeping; the next time we see them, they have assumed the familiar form of a plucked, ready-to-cook chicken anybody could go pick-up at the grocery store. I’m still not sure whether to read this disavowal of the physical animal body as a step in the right direction, a step back, or merely an interesting observation. But I do know that I feel more captivated by The Tale of the Fox and I’m determined to figure out why.
Coincidentally, the YouTube videos of The Tale of the Fox were posted just one month prior to Fantastic Mr. Fox’s theatrical release. Without the YouTube videos, I would have been unable to view this film. The only DVDs available for purchase are used copies ranging from $40-160, none of them in a format that will play in US DVD players. Just about the only place someone in the US can watch this film is on YouTube. Oddly enough, I think this helps the film. The Tale of the Fox possesses greater relevance now than it did 75 years ago, particularly in terms of animal studies. Starewitch’s film calls attention to the distance between humans and animals, a distance further compounded by its presence on YouTube. The film’s insistence on insistence on injuring, killing, and stripping the flesh from animal bodies momentarily breaks the spell of the anthropomorphic fable, as we are reminded that these are animals with whom we share a certain corporeal vulnerability. At the same time, the animals in the film aren’t real; they’re puppets carefully assembled by humans in a way that echoes the kind of communion with the animal body that occurs with taxidermy (particularly the anthropomorphic taxidermy that was common in the Victorian Era). So how are we, in the 21st century watching this film on our computers, supposed to read this film and its depiction of animal bodies?
For the published Humanimalia article that resulted from my research, click here.
Part 1 of The Tale of the Fox