The latter feat is all the more incredible for this Russian/French/German film. Made by the Russian-born Starewitch and his daughter Irene (with ample assistance from his wife Anna) over the course of a year in France, the film was out of date upon its completion in 1930. Sound was all the rage, and the film’s producer demanded it. Early attempts were futile. The film then languished for several years until the German studio UFA took an interest, financed the soundtrack, and premiered it in Berlin in April of 1937. The version most widely-available now is the French-language one released in 1941. Because of its long production, it was not technically the first release feature to be animated this way (Aleksandr Ptushko’s The New Gulliver was released before it), but as Ladislas completed his film first, he is widely considered a pioneer of the form.
I wasn’t surprised to find it left a mark on the making of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Its opening shot is very similar to that of Anderson’s film - a hill, a tree, an autumn season, and a fox. The characters’ movements - the way their fur ruffles, the odd way their animal mouths move when they speak - all carry over as well. The characters also slip in and out of more animalistic behavior. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, they’d growl and paw at each other; in Tale of the Fox, a cat becomes distracted during a conversation and starts playing with a dangling object. The animals move distinctively, befitting their stature and flexibility, helping to characterize them further than dialogue alone. Cartooning is often characterized by its emphasis on single traits, and while it’s harder to get away with that as much in stop-motion (the dolls need to actually move), small touches - the bunny’s Adam’s apple, the lion’s frown, the badger’s sort of hunched posture - go a long way.
The Tale of the Fox also anticipates wider developments in animation, even outside of stop-motion. One of the great advantages of modern CGI, even more so than in traditional hand-drawn animation, is that the camera really can go anywhere and do anything with often seamless grace. The Starewitchs were obviously limited by certain constraints, and I wouldn’t exactly call their similar efforts seamless, but Fox contains some fascinating camera movements to get from one part of a scene to another that would utterly impossible in live-action. The camera will be on one set up, then seem to tumble into the next. It’s not a cut, exactly; it honestly feels like the scene happening in front of it keeps on going and the “cameraman” readjusted in the moment. Such a move would not be doable in a live-action film at the time - the machines were too bulky - but here, as the family was creating each frame one by one, the possibilities really start to open up.
And then there are elements which are utilized very well in other forms of animation, but feel best suited to stop-motion. At the film’s climax, Renard leads his captors to a castle he’s rigged with a series of Rube-Goldberg-esque traps that systematically knock out each soldier. While we’ve seen such devices in computer-animated films, such as Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, Toy Story, or Robots, the thrill there is one of pure design. They give form to the innate understanding of a computer’s precision. With stop-motion, there’s a physical element - these objects could theoretically be doing exactly that to one another. And indeed, some of these traps in Tale of the Fox look like they were sprung in real-time, adding a layer of verisimilitude even Wallace and Gromit couldn’t muster with its many machines (though the figures in the “Action League Now!” segments of Nickelodeon’s KaBlam! certainly got their share). The film’s biggest laughs come from just how swiftly the traps are deployed - a character will look around in seeming peace, and then WHAM - mallet to the head.
More than just the beginning of a great many trends in animation, though, The Tale of the Fox is first and foremost spectacularly entertaining. It’s witty, charming, lovely to look at, and breathlessly paced. It’s sure to delight when it plays at the Egyptian on Friday, March 30th at 7:30pm, a program rounded out by two Starewitch shorts, “The Mascot” and “The Magic Clock”, the latter of which has been preserved by The Museum of Modern Art.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.