Disliking The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a cartoon I wasn’t expecting to discuss. A short film adaptation of the 2019 picture book by Charlie Mackesy, it has quite a nice artstyle and got a good deal of critical acclaim when it premiered for Christmas 2022, even winning itself an Oscar and a BAFTA for best short film. But I hadn’t been thinking much about it until I was talking with a friend about some folks online who felt it was a disingenuously “feel-good” kind of film, geared mainly towards voters wanting an overly sentimental cozy cartoon and nothing else from the medium. 

I was rather curious to know for myself, because it seems like a well-intentioned enough work and I didn’t want to dismiss it. Unfortunately, I came out of the other side understanding exactly where the people who criticized it were coming from. I’ve not watched a cartoon in quite some time that I find so unbearably distasteful to my own sensibilities. I had to take breaks every few minutes and psych myself up in order to keep going, in the hope that either I would better resonate with the thing or it would end.

It ended.

Normally, I don’t talk about cartoons I dislike. It’s not happened often that there’s a cartoon I actively don’t enjoy, and I prefer not to dwell on it when it does happen. I don’t get much out of it beyond a lingering sense of frustration for wasting my time thinking about how rubbish it is, when I could’ve been doing anything else.

But I wanted to talk about this, to try and dig into the nub of the matter beyond simply expressing second-hand embarrassment for laughs. Because going by an interview with the book’s author (who also served as the film’s co-writer and co-director), there is a genuine desire to do good.

“We’ve had different forms of hardness, you know, whether it’s pandemic and isolation or whether it’s economic I think everyone’s just feeling exhausted. It seems to me that if we’ve ever needed kindness, we need it now. And I don’t think there’s any human on Earth who couldn’t use a bit more kindness or comfort or hope or a healing. It was lovely to read from people’s messages during the pandemic about the book and I hope that film can do something similar in this time.”

-Charlie Mackesy, sourced from https://www.skwigly.co.uk/interview-the-boy-the-mole-the-fox-and-the-horse/

It’s a perfectly understandable and valid desire to create something that could give people hope or comfort, especially during difficult times. I don’t feel comfortable with dismissing that desire out of hand just because it’s a bit corny. I want to respond to how that desire manifested, in a film that’s aesthetically pleasant but did very little for me.

So, to paraphrase hacky stand-up routines of dubious origin, what’s the deal with The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse?

It’s a short film about a young nameless boy who finds himself lost in the snowy wilderness, desperately searching for home – whatever that is. He soon makes acquaintances with a cake-obsessed mole, and they attempt to find a home for the boy. Along the way, they also meet a fox and a horse, who accompany them on their travels and become dear friends in the process.

The movie is aesthetically pleasing, recreating the book’s thickly outlined, subtly painted characters and portraying some impressively rendered snowscapes in the process. The animation itself wasn’t anything I found remarkable, but there’s a weight and consistency to it that compliments the overall delicate nature of the production. Scenes are allowed to breathe, characters speak in quiet tones, and the score by Isobel Waller-Bridge defaults to a tender piano occasionally backed by an orchestra to create an overall pleasant atmosphere.

Pleasant is probably the word best suited to describing the film in a nutshell, but it aims for that ideal so much that it backfires. The dialogue is very twee, being comprised almost entirely of the characters giving each aspirational platitudes. I’m not gonna say how dialogue should or shouldn’t be written; I’m happy for the creators to go for whatever works in the moment as an expression of their interests and what they wanna say. But it’s nearly all the dialogue in the film and delivered/directed to be “simple but profound” in a manner that very quickly became patronizing and annoying.

These characters say nothing else to each other, they have no personality traits to distinguish them from one another beyond the mole’s love of cake, and what little conflict occurs between them is so quickly resolved as to not really matter. The result is a film full of exchanges that feel like the worst kind of “phony group therapy session” imagined by people scared of everyone spouting contextless quotes from Alan Watts and Deepak Chopra at each other in uncomfortably enlightened tones.

The movie’s pursuit of pleasantness becomes misguided, with a lack of any bite or real danger which then robs these platitudes of any power they might have. Scenes are emotionally compartmentalised, where things are only one thing – “happy” or “sad” or “exciting” – with no mixing of disparate or dissonant feelings to make things complicated or uncertain. The answer is always one truism away, and because this is the response to everything, nothing matters from it.

The one or two moments where there’s an attempt to add drama come off as insincere to the point of laughably ridiculous, such as the boy beating himself up and apologizing for the heinous crime of falling off a madly galloping horse. If we knew more about the boy or his situation, then it’d be easier to understand why he felt that way, but he’s so vaguely defined that it doesn’t work.

Everyone and everything is similarly presented in an abstract manner, with very little that’s concretely known about them. I think this is supposed to make it easier for the viewer to put themselves into the characters, add their own impressions onto the world, or fill the gaps in ways the filmmakers weren’t interested in exploring. However, this aim for a very general sense of universality results in unrelatably non-specific concepts, barely articulated beyond being a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse.

As such, the things they say or the emotions they feel don’t come off as things personal to each of them. I keep describing their dialogue as “platitudes” because that’s all it ever is, and I even got frustrated at the closing scenes for posing a serious personal question that decided how things would end. I got frustrated because this whole emotional climax hinged on having an understanding of the characters that just doesn’t exist, not in the way they’ve been presented throughout.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is alternatively cloying and ill-defined, and I was annoyed at how all this production – the animation, the art direction, the voice work, the music score, the pacing, the editing and so much – was done in the service of something that not only didn’t benefit from it, but may have even exacerbated it.

At this point, it occurred to me that perhaps it would be worth going to the source: the original picture book written and drawn by Charlie Mackesy back in 2019. I initially considered it on the basis that perhaps this was one of the situations where the dialogue resonated more strongly when written down, rather than being spoken aloud. So I found a copy and gave it a quick read, and to my surprise, it is a definite improvement over the film.

For the sake of fairness, most of the dialogue in the book was carried directly into the movie. There are just as many platitudes, and more that were left out in the process of adaptation. But what changed was the presentation.

The book presents these sayings through one-off vignettes consisting of an illustration or two and however many lines of dialogue is deemed necessary. Sometimes it’ll be just the one line, and other times it’ll be a full conversation. The abstracted nature of these vignettes, separated by pages, creates the suggestion that we’re only seeing moments in the time these people spend together.

It’s not clear how often they meet, how much time they spend together, or what they get up to off-page. But the book leans into that, giving off the impression that these characters do and say more things that we won’t ever see. As well as that, the structure creates the impression of a book that you perhaps read once a day, like a collection of inspirational quotes to keep you going. That feels more honest to the original intention of providing a sense of hope or comfort to those who need it.

In addition, the implied passage of time between these quotes (which could be further reflected in reality if you read one or two pages at a time) allows for those moments to have more significance. They’re allowed to breathe, and the overall abstracted nature allows for a more personal relationship to develop between the reader and the characters.

The core quartet are as vaguely defined as in the film, but since we’re only seeing glimpses of them, it becomes easier to come up with your own interpretations which then resonate more strongly. Those platitudes, anthropomorphized as dialogue between friends on a journey of some kind, gain a greater meaning even if they still come off as a bit mawkish.

I understand what happened and why now. The film wanted to take all these interactions and portray them in a more conventionally linear narrative, with a literal sense of presentation that kept things grounded. However, doing so without making greater changes to the abstraction inherent to the work meant that these platitudes, originally just brief points in countless conversations, became the only things these characters ever said to each other. The quiet pleasant vignettes in otherwise unknown and mysterious lives became the entirety of the movie’s emotional framework.

This isn’t me trying to suggest “the original is inherently better and any attempt to adapt it to another medium is folly”. It’s always worth the attempt, to see what new mediums of expression can allow you to explore, but I don’t think it worked out in this case. Obviously, it did for those who watched the film and loved it dearly, who found it provided exactly the sort of comfort and hope they were looking for.

But I’m not one of those people. I wish I were, or that I could at least say that this is a visually neat, cozy kind of movie to pop on some early morning. If nothing else, I hope I’ve been able to argue for why it didn’t work for me, and that I enjoyed the opportunity to dig deeper into a cartoon I didn’t like. Always worth a shot to go out of your comfort zone, even if it’s talking about cartoons on the internet. You might learn something new.

Special thanks to MalcmanIsHere, the aforementioned online friend from the World Animation Discord who got the ball rolling on me watching this film and writing this article to begin with.

Special thanks as well to s0stun! from the World Animation Discord, who helped me figure out some of my latter thoughts more concretely.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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