Fantastic Mr. Fox, Disruptive Agent

One of the more unlikely books about entrepreneurship and innovation is Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. In this children’s book (not that Dahl’s works should ever be considered strictly for children,) Dahl shows how the eponymous protagonist uses fox-like thinking to solve problems and motivate others through change.

Dahl’s book begins with a trio of nasty farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. The personification of oligopolistic corporate incumbents, they have  a chokehold on the local food supply. If the tale were modernized, they’d clearly be cable companies or banks.

Mr. Fox (who is, according to his lovely wife, Fantastic) has found a way to feed his family by high grading some chickens from Big Farming: he is literally eating their lunch. Bogus, Bunce and Bean are livid and spend night after night lying in wait for Mr. Fox, literally trying to destroy the competition.

In their screenplay (and fantastic film) based on the book, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach play with the notion of Mr. Fox as a bred-in-the-bone entrepreneur. Their Mr. Fox has traded in chicken stealing for the relatively risk-free job as a newspaper columnist, but he dearly misses the game: “I used to steal birds, but now I’m a newspaper man,” he mutters sadly to his friends. Of course, like many entrepreneurs who decide to take a corporate gig for a while, he cannot resist the allure of having a “chicken in his teeth” for long.

Mr. Fox is clever and he eludes the farmers by making sure that they are up-wind whenever he goes out on his hunts (Big Farming rarely seems to bathe.) But the farmers decide to seek out his fox hole and hit him where he lives. They shoot off his tail and then start trying to dig him, and his family, out of the ground

Fox needs a plan and does a quick SWOT analysis to determine his options. He concludes: “Nobody in the world can dig as quick as a fox!” and so he and his family dig their way to safety, eluding even the excavators the farmers have bought. Nimbleness trumps firepower.

Furious, the farmers decide to cut off the foxes’ supply chain by ringfencing the area in an attempt to starve them out. The foxes are growing weak with hunger and thirst as the deep-pocketed incumbents bide their time.

Mr. Fox has an idea — a big idea — but he needs his children to help him with the execution. He creates a vision to help his children push through their exhaustion and dig some more: “This time, we must go in a very special direction,” he says, “the place I am hoping to get to is so marvellous that if I described it to you now you would go crazy with excitement. And then, if we failed to get there (which is very possible), you would die of disappointment.” He leads them smack dab into the middle of Boggis’s chicken house. Boggis, Bunce and Bean sit guarding the now-empty fox hole with their shotguns, unaware that their actions inadvertently drove the fox into the henhouse.

The foxes are not too greedy and do not take too much food: “Mustn’t overdo it…Mustn’t give the game away. Mustn’t let them know what we’ve been up to. We must be neat and tidy and just take a few of the choicest morsels,” Mr. Fox says, taking the long view of things despite his hunger.

As they work to expand their tunnels to allow access to the Bunce and Bean storehouses as well, they run into other animals — badgers, moles, rabbits, and weasles — who have been caught in the fox/farmer dispute. Mr. Fox recognizes that there is strength in numbers and collaborates with the others. He shares his food and puts them to work.

The screenplay (which expands the role of the other animals) has some wonderful dialogue as Mr. Fox project manages his expanded team:

FOX (forcefully) All right! Let’s start planning! Who knows shorthand?

Pause. Badger points to his otter secretary. She is Linda. Fox darts over to her and grips her by the arm.

FOX Linda! Lutra Lutra! You got some dry paper? Here we go!

Fox, highly energized, moves among the group, touching their shoulders and patting their backs.

FOX Mole! Talpa Europea! What do you got?

MOLE (hesitates) I can see in the dark?

FOX (exhilarated) That’s incredible! We can use that! Linda?

LINDA (taking shorthand) Got it.

FOX Rabbit! Oryctolagus Cuniculus!

RABBIT I’m fast.

FOX You bet your cuss you are! Linda?

LINDA (taking shorthand) Got it.

FOX Beaver! Castor Fiber!

BEAVER I can chew through wood.

FOX Amazing! Linda?

LINDA (taking shorthand) Got it.

FOX Badger! Meles Meles!

BADGER Demolitions expert!

FOX (confused) What? Since when?

After they work, they celebrate with a meal. Mr. Fox gives an emotionally-charged celebratory speech to unite the group: “We are all diggers, every one of us. We hate the outside. The outside is full of enemies. we only go out because we have to, to get food for our families. But now, my friends, we have an entirely new set-up. We have a safe tunnel leading to three of the finest stores in the world…I therefore invite you all…to stay with me here for ever.” He has gained commitment to his vision from the others.

While the animals toast their plan to build a new empire underground, Boggis, Bunce and Bean sit outside in the rain with their guns in their laps. As they waste their time trying to destroy the competition, the world as they know it is changing beneath their feet.

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