From French directors Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert, GKIDs animated release The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is a collection of animal-driven folktales with its own delightfully particular sense of humor. Framed as a series of plays in which animals are the players, and replete with clever visual gags, the film uses animal tropes and stereotypes to comment on human foibles.
Stemming from the imagination of Renner, who wrote several graphic novels featuring animal characters prior to the feature version, The Big Bad Fox actually goes all the way back to the director’s childhood, when he would draw cheeky illustrations for his relatives as gifts. Below, the directing duo discuss their comedic inspirations and the process of bringing Renner’s “universe” to the big screen.
.Benjamin, you have a long history with this material. Can you discuss your journey through several graphic novels, and eventually this feature?
Benjamin Renner: Actually, all the characters that you see in the feature were characters I used when I was in middle school. I used to draw those characters for my family as presents that I could give them at Christmas, or for birthdays. At some point, I wanted to do a big graphic novel, get that thing published. After Ernest & Celestine, I was a little bit tired of the process of [making] a feature, so I decided, let’s make a graphic novel—it’s going to be faster.
I had this idea when I was a kid. I saw an incubator with eggs, and they were ready to hatch. My father was not passionate enough to see them, actually—he told me, “Ben, if you stay here, the eggs are going to hatch and you will be the first person they’re going to see. These are chicks and they will think you’re the mom, so you will have to take care of them.”
As a child, I was green, naturally. I was something like six or seven, and I was not ready to be a single mom, so I decided to just go away. But the idea stayed in my mind, and I really wondered, what if it really happens? What do you have to do? Do you have to teach the chick to be chicken, or are they going to copy your own behavior?
I had this idea of having the most unusual character who could raise a chick, and I thought of a fox not realizing that it’s going to be the mother, in a way, because it’s a predator. I thought it was good comedic starting point. I started drawing the story and that’s how I came up with The Big Bad Fox. I added the other stories I made them previously, and had a producer that wanted to adapt them.
Why do you think animals such timeless, universal subjects for storytelling?
Renner: I guess it’s really based on childhood memories. When you are a child, you are raised with those stories—I don’t know if you have them in the U.S.—like LaFontaine’s tale, The Wolf and the Fox. It’s really famous in France. It’s something you read and learn, and I loved it. What I like with those animals being heroes is that you can talk about a small society of humans, but using animals.
The fact that they’re animals, you’re going to have prejudice about them; like, the pig, he likes to eat; the fox, he’s going to be cruel and mean, and very smart. So you can play with that. I wanted to tell the story of a guy who was not feeling comfortable being what people are expecting him to be.
I’m talking about something very human, but using animals, so anyone can relate to that. Even in India, someone can read the book and understand the story. If I had told the story with humans, they would have probably maybe not related the same.
Patrick Imbert: You don’t have problems of [ethnicity] with animals. You don’t need a black rabbit, or a Chinese duck or something.
Renner: That’s true also.
The film often seems to challenge or subvert viewer’s expectations of traditional folk tales. At one point, you abruptly introduce a character who speaks Chinese, when the primary characters do not.
Renner: It was part of the comedy and having this. I think the name [of the animal] in English is “Slow Loris”—it’s an animal that’s been quite famous on the internet because there’s a clip of him opening his eyes in slow motion. It has huge eyes—like, very big. I like this animal, and when I did the graphic novel, I wanted to put him in the story.
Actually, at first, I think he was speaking French. He was speaking like everyone, like he was an animal. But we wanted to make it a little bit more funny, and we just thought, what if he speaks Chinese? I like when another character speaks another language, and it’s not translated. I think it’s really interesting, in terms of narration, so I just wanted to have this quick joke. Honestly, it was mostly about putting in a joke that made us laugh.
What has it been like collaborating on this, given that these character stemmed from Benjamin’s own history and imagination?
Imbert: Well, he created the whole universe. These are his own stories, at times. But at the same time, we had to adapt. I directed two of the tales—he directed one, I directed two. But we were involved in the whole process and in all the steps, because we both are able to do posings, animations, even color if it’s needed. We do most of the editing by ourselves. Even if he did the key poses for the animators, and even if I did all the supervising of the animation, we are both quite involved in everything. There are not a lot of people in our team, and there are not many layers between us and the animators, so we sometimes had to do many, many things.
Renner: This thing was also great, being together and having some of the same spirit. At some point, if one of us was too tired, you could say, “Okay, can you just take care of this?” So we could also switch roles.
Imbert: That was very convenient, because when you are drawing something, you think about a joke, you are making a scene, and little by little, you get lost. You don’t know what to do anymore, so you can give it to the other one next to you, and that’s what I did, many times. Benjamin was changing a bit and proposing something else. Then he gave it to me back. So, it’s kind of ping pong.
How did you go about mining comedy—and physical comedy, specifically—out of your characters?
Renner: Honestly, I think I am traditional with these tales. Of course, we have this tone that’s more humorous, and maybe more crazy, in a way. I think we were really referencing all those Looney Tunes characters, that spirit. Also, silent artists like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, all those characters that we love, and those tricks haven’t aged at all. We really love this kind of humor, and we try to be as good as them.
Of course, we are not as good as them, but we were trying to at least have fun doing the film. That’s quite hard, because it’s really based on rhythm and slapstick comedy, and in animation, you have to first make a storyboard. You have to make the voices, and you put things together—it’s like telling a joke very slowly, step by step. And of course, you never know if it’s going to be efficient. That’s why it was pretty hard. It was not something easy to do.
Comedy, it’s like you’re working on clockwork. You change a little thing, and something doesn’t work. For example, we had a big surprise with [one of our] actors. We were not expecting him to be funny at this part of a dialogue, and he just said it in a way that was really funny. And the other way around—some dialogue, we thought was working well, and the actors couldn’t make it fun for some reason, maybe because we wrote it wrong. We understood each other, but suddenly it’s not working, it’s not [working with] the tone and we’re like, “Something’s missing.” So you have to adapt all the time.
Imbert: Until the final editing, we pay real attention to the rhythm, and to making the jokes work.
You made an interesting visual choice with the airport sequence, where—in a classic gag—we only see the characters’ eyes as they are rocked around the inside of airplane cargo. What inspired that choice?
Renner: This was a very low budget film and we thought, Okay, we have to make him pass through an airport. Let’s find a solution. It was the most stupid solution.
Imbert: Economic solution. Because there’s not many things to draw, so it can be fast to do.
Renner: It’s mostly that we were looking at the thing and thought, Maybe we can tell it this way. At first, it was a joke for us, but it’s more useful than anything else. Let’s do that.
Is there something fun about exploring ideas like that, which begin as economic decisions but result in something unique?
Renner: Yeah, of course. I think in animation, when you get an idea, it’s such a great pleasure of excitement and you think, “Yeah, it can be cool like this. Let’s try that.” The problem is that sometimes, you’re just stuck and you have no idea what to do. Each time you find an idea, that’s such an excitement. We’re trying to find it, but it’s not like you can really control what you want to do.
What were the biggest challenges you confronted on this project?
Renner: One of the first challenges was that it was not intended to be for the [movie] theater, the film—it was not supposed to be a feature. At first, it was a TV special. At some point, it was like, “Hey guys, you know what? Let’s make a feature.” We were not expecting that.
We were really stressed and immediately, we took the pictures and watched it on a big screen, to see if it was okay to release it on a big screen. For us, one of the biggest challenge to suddenly pass from something that was modest to something that’s going to hit cinemas. We had to find the best way to make it work, that people wouldn’t feel like, Yeah, we were being cheap, and trying to sell something that we made with no money, trying to pretend it’s a film. And also, trying to find how we could put all the episodes together, so that’s when we had this idea of putting it into a theater, on stage.