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Big Bad Fox and Other Tales, The (2017)

Life on the farm is quiet and peaceful. Pig is in a good mood tending to his fruit and vegetable garden without a care in the world. Along comes Duck and Rabbit and suddenly this farmyard starts to feel more familiar and something we can relate to. As the cast expands with the head Hen, Fox and Wolf we see identity issues, quests to fit in, and the search for a purpose. How will these journeys play out? Luckily this farmyard is filled with wannabe thespians who are more than happy to put on a show.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is staged a set of 3 amateur dramatic plays that are put on by members of the farmyard that are all compered by our titular fox wearing a rather dapper bow tie. The three tales are "A Baby to Deliver", "The Big Bad Fox" and "Perfect Christmas". Over the course of these three tales, we are introduced to the inhabitants of the farmyard and see how they live lives not unlike our own, where they are plagued by the same concerns and challenges that are all too familiar.

In the first tale "A Baby to Deliver" (written by Benjamin Renner) we meet Pig tending his splendid and well-loved garden. Duck and Rabbit offer Pig their assistance beginning the first of many perfectly pitched comedy scenes. Thankfully their assistance is interrupted by the arrival a stork who is on his way to deliver a baby. To help Stork, Duck and Rabbit offer to deliver the baby to the rightful parents. How hard could that be? It is quite a simple tale but it's propelled along by the differing personalities and idiosyncrasies of our cast. This is their first interaction with the outside world and they approach it with such childlike wonder and innocence. What follows is a great road trip full of visual gags and narrative comedy with some genuine heartfelt moments.

The second tale is based on the book by Benjamin Renner "Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Fox". Here the hungry and slightly pathetic Fox (now without bow-tie) hatches a plan with the Wolf so they can eat ... and eat well. Fox has this issue in that he is not scary and as such none of his prey take him seriously. Wolf has the problem that everyone is on the look out for him. What could go wrong in this partnership? Protecting the farmyard is a rather lazy guard dog and a flock of chickens lead by a rather militant head hen who organises anti-fox training classes. What follows are hair-brained schemes reminiscent of classic Warner Brothers, some classic physical comedy, and a touching reflection on parenting and the innocence of children. You definitely feel for Fox and his predicament, and unlike the other tales there is a hint of darkness that is present in all good tales for children

The final story, "Perfect Christmas" tells the tale of Rabbit and Duck, who along with Pig, are trying to save Christmas. The animals are decorating the farmyard and one of the Santa decorations sends Rabbit into a bit of a flap - it looks like Santa has had some kind of incident! Rabbit takes it upon himself to save Christmas and what follows is some magical situational comedy that builds on the characters already developed and expands the world just a little bit more to give us a charming festive tale that is fun, light, breezy and funny. (I'm also a bit of a bah-humbug but found this tale to be pitched just right - it was not over the top with Christmas and used it more as a setting for a good story.)

These short descriptions really do not do the tales justice as they are a superb mix of story, animation, acting and comedy. To go into more detail would just spoil it but the stories are universal and they can be enjoyed by everyone or any age. They are balanced perfectly with just the right amount of sentiment, peril and farce. At a deeper level, I felt the tales touched on identity and that people sometimes pretend to be something they are not. Whilst characters acted in a certain way you definitely sensed their reasons. Although we had a cast of anthropomorphised animals, their motivations and behaviours made them feel very real and familiar.

The Big Bad Fox is the second collaboration between Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert. The first outing was on Ernest & Celestine with Benjamin directing and Patrick headed up the animation. Patrick Imbert was also the animation director on the fantastic April and the Extraordinary World. For the Big Bad Fox, Patrick Imbert is now directing an animation written by Benjamin Renner who has adapted two of his graphic novels for this feature.

The animation on show is glorious. When watching it I was struck by the similarity in style to My Neighbours the Yamadas, an animation that I love. Its tone and art style has definitely influenced The Big Bad Fox and for me, that is no bad thing. The lines and colouring of the characters are full of energy. It gives you that feeling that you are watching it be created there and then which, given that you are watching a play, adds to the atmosphere. The watercolour effect is also quite disarming as it engenders a relaxed and tranquil world which contrasts with at-times zany farce overlaid on it. I would quite happily have a background cell from this feature frames on the wall, it's just so pretty.

There has been significant effort expended on the characters. It is difficult to extract this from some of the design work which comes from Benjamin's original illustrations. So much is communicated through the body language of characters, their facial expressions and the way in which they move. We have all seen behind the scene features of actors recording their dialogue for, say, a Pixar film and their acting becoming incorporated into the production. I got the same sense here that a significant amount of acting had been observed and incorporated to imbue these characters with realistic tics. They feel like they belong in this world. The body language of Pig shows he's a bit uptight and Rabbit is full of energy as if he has had one sweet too many. As for the guard dog, you can see he is in it for an easy life. It is great to see such nuance captured by the animation team and sets a high bar for other features to follow.

Animated comedy, well, comedy in general, can be tricky to get right but here everything comes together. The animation style just gives a slight sense of chaos and spontaneity that when the visual comedy happens it delivers. Much of the comedy is slapstick in nature and you can certainly feel the influence of Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel & Hardy. A more modern reference that encapsulates the comedy is Gromit (from Wallace & Gromit) or perhaps Shaun the Sheep. It is not something that is obviously set up but there are moments when you can see it coming and the anticipation pays off. The comedy on show is universal, there is something for everyone and there is usually something going on in the frame to make you chuckle. Perhaps linked to the silent film inspiration is the fact that if you removed the voices and subtitles this film would still make complete sense - it is a fantastic blend of story and animation.

I'm not always one to stay through the credits but here they are presented with such joy that I had to stay right the way to the end. All amateur dramatic plays have a crew to tidy up the venue once the actors have left. Now we meet the caretaker, a frog, who could not resist getting his moment in the spotlight. This was the final animated flourish and is just a thing of pure joy. This was accompanied by a pancake recipe and that just made the whole experience something to remember.

Once again the team of Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner have produced a feature full of heart told through sublime animation. Whilst influenced by My Neighbours the Yamadas this is its very own tale, world and style. The character animation is spot on to the point that if you removed the dialogue you would still get a strong sense of who our actors were, their personalities and a coherent story. Having read the original graphic novel, the film does a wonderful job of bringing those characters and world to life. The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales is a genuine joy to behold and can be enjoyed regardless of the age of the viewer. As soon as the lights came up I could have happily gone back and watched it again knowing that I would laugh and have a big smile on my face at the end.

FROM StudioCanal
 U [UK]
1hr 23m 

IN A NUTSHELL: With an art and animation style that is full of energy, this is a joy from start to finish. A must-see for animation fans, adults and children alike.