Credit: Apple TV+
by Esmé Holden Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse — Charlie Mackesy, Peter Baynton

January 6, 2023

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is quite naked in its ambitions to become the next classic British Christmas special — The Snowman (1982) for a new generation. While Raymond Briggs’ influence can be seen in both Charlie Mackesy’s book and the film adaptation he co-directed with Peter Baynton, he pinches much more liberally, and much more blatantly, from Winnie the Pooh: from the loose art style which (like E.H. Shepard) tries to retain the energy of underdrawing to the sentimental one-liners which don’t just borrow their rhythm from A.A. Milne, but their content too. The book’s second line, “[you’re so small] but you make a big difference,” reads suspiciously close to “sometimes, the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” Suspicious beyond a reasonable doubt, some would say.

But The Boy, the Mole is best understood as part of a lineage of British Christmas adverts: specifically, the style brought in by the collaborations between the department store John Lewis and the advertising agency Adam & Eve, which started in the late 2000s but peaked throughout the 2010s as innumerable similar brands copied them, making ever so slight variations on the exact same thing. They are always faintly narrative — the Bear and the Hare in John Lewis’ 2013 ad centered around the vague idea of Christmas, just as the Boy, the Mole, and the others travel toward the vague idea of home — but are primarily driven by sentimental setpieces, created only from abstracted signifiers pointing toward emotional caricature rather than any emotion in particular. Mackesy’s addition to the formula is this: instead of images, like a group of people or animals around a table or tree, he evokes emotion bluntly and directly through the little self-help quotes that solely populate the dialogue.

What’s quite shocking is how untethered these warmed-over bits of “wisdom” are from any kind of story. Based on the accompanying documentary, however, this seems to be a point of pride for Mackesy; he insists that the story doesn’t need a narrative, that the story is the conversation. But for there to be a conversation, there must be characters to converse in it. These four are only thinly distinguished by a single trait — the Mole loves cake (in a way that’s reminiscent of a different character’s love of honey), and the Fox is drawn — and all speak in the exact same voice. Either way, they aren’t having a conversation; nothing is bridging one inspirational quote from the next, as they are simply stated without motivation or context. It’s hard to convey the extent of this, except to say that when reading the even looser book — which doesn’t even have the setup of being lost or the idea of some home to move toward — it’s easy to find yourself wondering if the pages might be in the wrong order.

It’s no surprise, then, to learn that this horrible enterprise began as Instagram posts. Little work has gone into adapting it into anything else for the movie — the book might as well be a bunch of random posts printed and stapled together. It’s hard not to wonder if Charlie Mackesy is just as cynical. The ads which his work most resembles frame themselves as non-commercial in that they never feature the brand or their products (though they do tend to feature a cuddly character who will no doubt be available as a plush toy). Alongside the wacky adverts that just preceded them, like the Gorilla drumming along to Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight for Cadbury, they are driving marketing further toward abstraction, moving away from the tropes that the general public are familiar with in order to smuggle their messages into their brains through other means, such as the false pretenses of quirkiness, sentimentality, or social cause. And so, despite how aggressively surface-level and thin Mackesy’s work seems to be, one has to ask what exactly it is that he’s trying to sell.

Most literally, it’s all the T-shirts and tote bags, and a new twenty-pound version of his book composed of screenshots from the film. But when returning to the source, his Instagram, there is a sense of the wider project. He seems to share most of the same pet causes with the Tories (the British right): from supporting nurses without ever advocating for their better treatment (he side-steps this by drawing them as angels, as saint-like creatures only to be looked up at and celebrated) to worshiping the royal family. Some of the only art that isn’t nakedly recycled is his loving portraits of the rotting former Queen and her ghoulish husband. This might seem in contrast with his calls for kindness, with the use of mental health and self-help rhetoric, but of course, it isn’t. This language has been appropriated by the right in increasingly cynical ways, teaching people to solipsistically acquiesce to the status quo; to look inward rather than out.

Even Mackesy’s already wishy-washy gesture toward climate change — a character saying, without context, that there is “so much beauty we need to look after ”— can be read in this way, knowing that Mackesy has said that these characters are all fragments of the same person. The empty space around them, made blank by the white snow, is intentionally non-specific because it doesn’t represent a place but a mind, much like the room that Jordan Peterson claims you must clean before trying to change anything outside. But maybe that’s imagining a work more coherent than Mackesy is capable of making. Maybe this is just wish fulfillment in bleak times, like the naïvely well-intentioned Everything Everywhere All At Once, which also imagines material change coming from the inside. Tax issues are solved metaphorically through the same generic kindness that will somehow stop climate change. But ultimately, one has to look where the art is pointing. Like Christmas adverts, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse tries to obscure its useless, if not entirely regressive, ideology with what feels intuitively good, heart-warming, and kind. But even by the standards of advertising, Mackesy’s vision is so thin, and his talent so limited, that it can’t hide anything at all; his work is as bare as it is dishonest.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 1.