Fantastic Mr. Fox marks the first time Wes Anderson, that connoisseur of whimsy, has worked with animation. If the switch required an adjustment it’s hard to tell. From the use of slow-motion to Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty soundtrack the world of this stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic looks and feels a lot like the offbeat ones of The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore.
It’s no small achievement that it does so while telling the story of a fox named Mr. Fox (George Clooney) who lives with his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) in a tree and turns to espionage in a quest to combat three evil farmers. In the wrong hands, Dahl’s work could be prone to the strenuous prettifying and overt moralizing that are so often byproducts of family productions. Anderson goes the opposite direction, applying a deadpan tenor to the author’s mischievous spirit.
His movie functions as a classically structured nostalgic adventure, a full-fledged depiction of a unique community and an affectionate exploration of manliness and alienation. The film falls short when it comes to provoking sufficient pathos — the lightheartedness and other characteristic Anderson affectations occasionally make things feel too processed. Yet, it’s consistently a lot of fun to watch and entirely unlike any of its counterparts.
The animation forgoes frills for a rudimentary style comparable to that employed on King Kong and other pioneering stop-motion works. No attempt’s been made to disguise the process — fur flickers, mouths move quickly and not always in sync with what’s being said and there’s a lack of fluidity to the changes in shots. The filmmaker evidently treasures the sensibilities of animation that dared to be animation and not a close, computer generated approximation of reality.
At the same time, Anderson took his voice cast to real locations and asked them to interact with one another, in a break from the individualized recording studio tradition. That effect, when combined with the casual anthromorphic qualities bestowed upon Mr. Fox and the other animals, imbues the picture with a realistic feel that adds texture to the characters and their dilemmas. Their big, expressive eyes, and Anderson’s emphasis of them, transform the foxes and the other animals from manufactured creations to soulful beings. Their animalistic side only shows when they hurriedly devour their food, bite the necks of live chickens or get in the occasional growling, scratching fight. Mostly, one gets the sense throughout that Clooney, Streep and the rest of the ensemble are acting, not just giving voice to someone else’s vision.
The flick turns, as do all Anderson films, on various forms of anxiety — particularly Mr. Fox’s existential crisis as he faces old age and Ash’s teenage jealousy of dashing cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) — and the tribulations of a lacking parent-child relationship. Yet the filmmaker saves time for fun, with large yellow letters announcing the various stages of Mr. Fox’s various schemes. The battle between the underdog animals and Boggis, Bunce and Bean, the mean farmers sick of the foxes stealing their chickens, unfolds with a quirky carefree spirit that recalls the tenor of an older age of animation. It’s never taken particularly seriously — Mr. Fox is usually armed with a quip of some sort and his accomplices tend to be rather dimwitted, though there is opposing them a darkly lit, jailbird rat voiced by Willem Dafoe that adds some much needed menace.
Still another reason to see Fantastic Mr. Fox is to marvel at its vision of a yellow and orange hued world of warm cottages, sweeping landscapes and long, sterile underground industrial corridors. It’s a compact, completely fleshed out universe, enhanced immeasurably by careful lighting and a wealth of background details. It feels like the perfect place for Wes Anderson characters to inhabit.
The movie stands out in large part because the filmmaker has so successfully applied his trademark style and sensibility to this new form. Anderson’s success raises the intriguing question of how well other live-action directors might invigorate animation by staying true to their interests and never succumbing to the technology involved. He’s shown the way. It’s time for someone else to assume the mantle.
The Upside: The movie functions exactly like a live-action film for adults; Wes Anderson hasn’t compromised his vision for animation.
The Downside: Like many of Anderson’s films, it’s occasionally too mannered and self-consciously whimsical.
On the Side: The movie is one of the 20 eligible for the five Best Animated Feature slots at the upcoming Academy Awards and it’ll likely snag a nomination.
Watch the Fantastic Mr. Fox trailer below: