AFED #72: Le Roman de Renard [The Tale of the Fox] (France, 1937); Dir. Ladislas Starevich

Some seventy years before Fantastic Mr. Fox, pioneering animator Ladislas Starevich delivered another anthropomorphic animal story that comfortably rivals it for quality. Le Roman de Renard may not boast George Clooney's laconic tones but its influence on the style and ambiance of Wes Anderson's film is plainly obvious, right down to the depiction of the animals' domestic lives.

Adapted from Goethe's version of the Reynard legend (a staple of European folklore), Starevich's film was one of the earliest feature length animations and a decade in the making. It shows both in the wealth of detail bestowed on every scene; from the vast menagerie of different animal characters to the meticulous set design and visual gags.

The story charts the fortunes of Reynard, a cunning and inventive fox who runs afoul of the rest of the animal kingdom with his constant tricks and ruses. The king of the beasts, the Lion, finally loses patience and sends an army to lay siege to Reynard's castle. After a prolonged episode he's eventually captured, but having constantly demonstrated his resourcefulness the Lion concludes Reynard would actually make a very good minister and duly appoints him.

Bearing in mind that Starevich's earliest film back in his native Russia was The Cameraman's Revenge, a story about infidelity amongst insects, it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Tale of the Fox isn't pitched squarely at kids. There's wry humour throughout and I couldn't help wondering whether, as a Russian who'd left his homeland to escape the communists, there wasn't some kind of satirical point being made at the end.

Personally it's not quite up there with my favourite Starevich film, the sublime Fétiche [The Mascot] (1934), which manages to be altogether weirder and creepier, but Starevich deserves to be better remembered than he is today and you should, at the very least, have a look at some clips of his work on Youtube.


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