This review is part of coverage for the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
As much as fans of animation might sometimes want cartoons to be treated as merely humorous entertainment for children, there’s something downright impressive with a work that works as kids’ comedy and sticks the landing. Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales succeeds so well that to talk about it as a “funny cartoon” seems inadequate—yet it’s the perfect description.
Broken up into three segments, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is an anthology centered around a farm and the Looney Tunes-style animals that inhabit it. The first segment sees a pig, along with his well-meaning but incompetent duck and rabbit friends, try to deliver a human baby to her parents. The second features the ironically titular “big bad fox,” who ends up having to raise the very chicks he’s trying to eat. The third is a Christmas special, where pig, duck, and rabbit try to fill in for Santa Claus and deliver presents to the world. All of them are loosely connected, presented as if all the animals are performing a stage play for the audience for comedic effect.
What makes The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales work so well is that the humor is very much a part of the narrative, giving the jokes a proper sense of continuity. In many other cartoons, humor consists of a series of jokes (sometimes references, sometimes not) that come one right after another. If they’re too reliant on single punchlines or winks and nods, the whole thing starts to feel less like an experience and more a joke-delivery system. But the film sets up, executes, and nails both its major and minor gags, even throwing in some sensibly heart-warming moments in the process. Contributing to the levity of the entire experience is the art style of the film, with varying widths in the line work and a bright palette that looks as much picture-book as it does comic strip.
My favorite segment is The Big Bad Fox, and I assume that the creators thought the same if they decided to feature it in the title. There’s a constant turning of expectations centered around the fox’s relationship to his “children,” and the sight of three adorable little chicks fully believing they’re apex predators never stopped being entertaining. It’s sort of like if the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons featuring the chickenhawk were taken up a notch and then given a bigger heart.
After the film’s screening, the creator Benjamin Renner was interviewed. He described the origins of the film as comics he used to draw for his family as Christmas and birthday presents, often about how the animals lost the “real” presents along the way. While answering the audience’s questions (all from kids), my big takeaway is that Renner provides a strong example of how the ideas and inspirations of one’s childhood can still thrive and inspire in adult, professional life.