Fantastic Mr. Fox

| November 28, 2009

Wes Anderson’s first full-on foray into animation is a total charmer, though I doubt many kids will like it. While Spike Jonze’s equally audacious adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are delved into the psyche of a child (with brilliantly haunting results), Anderson’s film is clearly about (and for) adults. Mr. Fox tries to be a fantastic father and husband, but he’s a wild animal at heart. Thus, he can’t help himself from getting into all sorts of mischief that ultimately puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. He’s in the typical Anderson mold of a man grappling with a midlife crisis, yet he’s closer in spirit to the indefatigable Royal Tenenbaum than the despondent Steve Zissou. As voiced by George Clooney, Mr. Fox has a vibrant energy and zest that makes him hard to resist.
I’d like to think that kids would find him irresistible too, but the truth is, this film isn’t really made for them. Anderson has no desire to alter his trademark style in order to please a particular demographic, and his approach to Fantastic Mr. Fox is no different than the one he’s used on his last three pictures. Perhaps the only thing Anderson does to make his film suitable for a young audience is replace every cuss word in the script with the word “cuss” (resulting in lines like “What a cluster-cuss!” and “Oh my cuss!”).
It’s staggering to observe how Anderson never wavers from his personal cinematic vision, despite the fact that he’s utilizing stop-motion animation and (loosely) adapting a beloved classic by Roald Dahl. What’s surprising is how much his understated humor gels with Dahl’s dryly inventive wit. This may be the first big-screen adaptation of Dahl’s work that doesn’t feel the need to use fish-eye lenses in order exaggerate the eccentricity of his characters. At a time when most “family films” have become increasingly loud and shrill (while practically bludgeoning the audience over the head with obvious punch-lines), Fantastic Mr. Fox’s deadpan banter seems jarringly sophisticated. Most of it will fly over the heads of younger viewers, though they’ll have plenty of visual delights to feast their eyes upon.
Anderson’s carefully structured compositions have never looked more rich and alive than they do in the realm of animation. It’s as if the filmmaker has finally found the perfect medium for his style to take flight (much like Robert Zemeckis’s newfound freedom in motion-capture). His camera can glide through endless rooms, and track characters as they dig labyrinthine holes underground, without requiring a life-size Cinecitta set. As in every Anderson film, the richest delights come from the smallest details–such as the flick of an ear from Mr. Fox’s annoyed son (whose troubled relationship with his father continues Anderson’s obsession with parent/child dynamics). Some of the voice actors are so recognizable, they’re simply distracting. As the long-suffering Mrs. Fox, Meryl Streep seems to be filling in for Anjelica Huston, while Bill Murray and Owen Wilson seem to be contractually obligated to appear in every one of Anderson’s pictures. The wonderfully named “Wallace Wolodarsky” is quite funny as Kylie, Mr. Fox’s addle-brained partner-in-crime, though his multiple brain blips (accompanied by spiral eye syndrome) is one of many running gags that never quite works.
Yet there’s plenty about Fantastic Mr. Fox that does work, enough to make me dare parents to bring their kids, particularly if they like their entertainment clever and adventurous (rather than dumb and dull). For Anderson fans, the film will be as satisfying as any of the director’s previous work (I found it to be his most purely enjoyable since The Royal Tenenbaums). Even the grouchiest audience members may find themselves dancing out of the theater, courtesy of Anderson’s download-worthy soundtrack (which mixes Alexandre Desplat’s enchanting score with infectiously toe-tapping songs like “Let Her Dance” by The Bobby Fuller Four). It also may be one of the director’s most personal works, as Mr. Fox reflects on his own need to make everyone think he’s fantastic (a need that must have been embedded in Anderson ever since he was labeled, “The Next Martin Scorsese” by Scorsese himself). At age 40, Anderson has realized his artistic limitations, and learned how to flourish within them.

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