When the book opens, the farmers are blasting Mr. Fox's tail off because he has tried, as usual, to go shopping on their farms. Then they attempt to starve him out of the hole where he lives with his family. They are mean, small-souled people with terrible palates. They eat the same disgusting meals every day and single-mindedly want the same cruel things. Reading the story as a child, I would think to myself, I am an adventurous eater. I do not want to eat the same things every day either. How uncivilized.
The animals in the book are very civilized creatures. The story makes this apparent in how they appreciate food. The food of Fantastic Mr. Fox is not the little-kid wonderland of Dahl's best-known book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the pure, innocent perfect stone fruit of James and the Giant Peach. This is a feast, and one with a very grown-up menu. The book is studded with descriptions of carnivorous delights--chicken, ducks, geese, turkey, and ham. Even today, as a borderline vegetarian, I find myself lingering over these descriptions.
The film version takes a slightly different approach to food than the book. While many scenes are the same, food is a less central pleasure because the animals struggle not only against the humans, but also each other and their own natures. The film begins with a heist scene, as Mrs. Fox accompanies her husband on a daredevil mission to raid a farm. When they are caught, in a move that would be very out of character for her literary counterpart, she makes her husband promise that if they get out alive, he will never put himself in danger by stealing again.
Mr. Fox tries to listen, but for the rest of the movie, despite a respectable job as a newspaper man, his attempts at reforming himself tend to flag when it comes to food and thievery. Perhaps the movie's approach to food says more about our time than the era in which the book was written: it does not end with the feast that finishes the book, but rather in a supermarket full of goods with artificial flavorings, where the animals are grateful to be together and to have any food at all.
On the other hand, the delight of the book lies in the sheer trickery of the foxes outwitting the humans, which they manage not because they are "wild animals," as the Fox of the movie suggests, but because they are actually more civilized, less beastly, and more thoughtful than the horrid farmers. The animals in the book are, plainly, able to appreciate a good meal and good conversation. When Fox's starving gang cleverly tunnels from their hole to the three farms, he selects their entrees like a gourmand. Of a scene in Bunce's storehouse, Dahl writes:
"Stop!" ordered Mr. Fox. "This is my party, so I shall do the choosing." The others fell back, licking their chops. Mr. Fox began prowling around the storehouse examining the glorious display with an expert eye. A thread of saliva slid down one side of his jaw and hung suspended in midair, then snapped.
"We mustn't overdo it... We must be neat and tidy and take just a few of the choicest morsels."
There's a nod to vegetarianism, too; when one Small Fox tells his father they should lift some carrots, he responds:
"Don't be a twerp. ...You know we never eat things like that." "It's not for us, Dad. It's for the Rabbits. They only eat vegetables."... "What a thoughtful little fellow you are!"
One must, after all, be considerate of one's guests, and they have invited all the other animals to their party, which goes from "feast" to "banquet" with the addition of Bean cider--which is said to be "like drinking sunbeams and rainbows."