We strive towards specificity in film storytelling because it is the antidote to the generic. It has been codified as a rule within the script-coaching industry, and it is generally solid advice. But shorts are allowed to break rules whenever they like, especially when they are self-financed passion projects like Robin Joseph’s Fox and the Whale. Joseph isn’t concerned with finding meaning through dramatization, there is no richly developed protagonist with a compelling backstory. You’re not meant to connect to his film via a recognition of the plotting of the story, but through it’s spirit. It is not a film about a fox in search for a whale in any real sense, though that is what takes place on screen, but is no less than an allegory about the meaning of searching.
Now rules are rules for good reason, and by eschewing the trappings of a traditional narrative Fox and the Whale can test one’s patience in its 12 minute runtime. The comfort one finds through this existential journey then is in Joseph’s impeccable art. It is ironic that a film that aims for such lofty themes at the expense of specificity does so extoll in lush detail. The backgrounds of the film are glorious and the compositions sumptuous. Like John Muir, Joseph finds spiritual purpose in the wild, and seeks to impart that emotion to us. Those backgrounds exist in tension with the purposeful minimalism of the fox character however, his head a bare triangle with eyes, an arrow pointed to parts unknown. An abstraction at the heart of the film, the fox is a stand-in for us, for an idea, for anyone who journeys with purpose or without, and whom constructs meaning along the way, knowing that the destination may only contain disappointment.
A whale has, since Moby Dick, often stood in for obsession, but like many films this abstract there is much that can be read into Fox and the Whale. The timeline of the short is subject to interpretation, and in particular Joseph returns periodically to a particular shot of the fox on a celestial field. Is it a mirror of the stars on shallow water below, the cloud from which glimpses of the whale emerge simple fog? Or is it deeper—the birth of being, a connection hinting that the themes of the film are deeper and more ancient—the universe depicting the universal? The film plays like a tone poem, and like poetry symbolism plays a role, however your enjoyment of Fox and the Whale will likely depend heavily on how much the art, with its richly developed environs and its fantastic sound design, allow you to bypass attempts to grasp the film intellectually and access the film emotionally.
For this reviewer, Joseph succeeded. Part of it may be through how much of himself Joseph clearly puts into the film. The film is intensely personal for Joseph, a freelance animator who has worked on mainstream projects at Blue Sky, Dreamworks and Illumination, Joseph embarked on the risky path of refusing outside work to pursue his muse. 16 months of full time labor ensued to complete the film, largely through Photoshop. His partner Kim Leow chipped in with an estimated 3-4 months of work doing all the CG in the film. The process thus mirrors the themes, a risky quest, with an uncertain outcome. But the end result is stunning. On a purely aesthetic level it is one of the most gorgeous animations of recent memory, and for all of us who tread an unknown path, its storytelling is resonant.