A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX jjj

2009, PG, 88 mins.

With the voices of:

Mr. Fox: George Clooney / Mrs. Fox: Meryl Streep / Ash: Jason Schwartzman / Badger: Bill Murray / Franklin Bean: Michael Gambon / Rat: Willem Dafoe / Coach Skip: Owen Wilson

Directed by Wes Anderson / Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl.

At a first glance, Wes Anderson may seem like the least likely filmmaker to abandon live action features to helm a stop motion animated film.  His eclectic film resume, which includes BOTTLE ROCKET, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, reveals his unique auteur sensibilities.  Regardless of whether those films were successful or not (I have always been mostly Anderson-neutral, having never fully chastised nor wholeheartedly embraced his body of work), there is no denying his skills at blending dry and deeply understated humor, poignant portrayals of flawed and damaged characters (which are viewed in a compassionate light), and the dissection of the strained family unit.  He once famously stated that his films, “point out the beauty in flaws and vice versa.” 

That last comment speaks considerably towards his participation in helming an adaptation FANTASTIC MR. FOX, which was originally written in 1970 by British children novelist Roald Dahl (who you may recall also penned such classics – also turned into films – like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH).  The decision to opt for stop motion animation seems incongruous with Anderson’s aesthetic leanings, but they actually kind of warmly embrace them.  Stop motion has always been given a bad rap when compared to the technological sheen and precision of modern CG animated features, which have all but eroded other animation forms altogether from widespread acceptance and commercial viability.  Yet, I have always marveled at stop motion that much more: it has an invigorating tactile quality that even the best Pixar features don’t have.  Yes, the fluidity of the animation is frequently jerky and often looks more crude and elementary, but it is its imperfections that make it beautiful and so atmospheric.  

So, yes, there is beauty in its flaws…and vice versa. 

I think that stop motion was the absolute right choice for the underlining material: Anderson, working with animation director Mark Gustafson, cinematographer Tristan Oliver, and production designer Nelson Lowry, combine together to create a world in MR. FOX that embodies the rich textures and, yes, fantastical atmosphere that Dahl, no doubt, was trying to elicit in his book.  The film does look a bit primitive in design, but its execution is superlative.  There has been some controversy as to exactly how much of Anderson is evident in the film (they have been reports that he simply fed instructions to the puppeteer crew in London while residing in Paris, which invites questions as to how hands-on he was).  However, I think it is safe to assume that within the first few minutes of MR. FOX, it’s hard to overlook that the film is stylistically evocative of Anderson's trademark use of bright colors, methodical and static cinematography, and, most importantly, subversive and highly whimsical tone.  All of that is here in spades, so the conspiracy nuts can give it a rest. 

What’s perhaps even more noteworthy is the film's matchless voice cast, largely made up of Anderson alumni that thankfully play their roles as straight as they would if they were filming a live action drama.  That’s so welcoming, seeing as far too many animated features try to get by on the boisterous and histrionic vocals of their aggressively over-the-top cast.  Key to MR. FOX’s solid and underplayed voice work is Mr. Fox himself, voiced with the typical calm, collected, and cool bravado of George Clooney.  Yes, he is a fox, but he is also a former thief that now earns a living as a newspaper columnist (his past proclivity to stealing barnyard animals slyly mirrors another similar character Clooney embodied in the OCEANS films).  Tired of living in a real hole-in-the-ground of a home (and by that I mean a literal hole) Fox decides to take his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep, wonderfully subtle and quietly emotive) and son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, equally soft spoken and affectionate) to a luxurious new high rise condo…a house way up in a tree.  Fox does so while ignoring the dire financial warnings of his lawyer, who is in fact a badger in a suit (Bill Murray, perfectly exuding his dryly funny edge), but nonetheless Fox uproots his family – which has recently seen an addition in the form of his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) – and make the move to their palatial new home.   

Interestingly, the new house is conspicuously close to the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (voiced with menacing authority by Michael Gambon), which is perhaps too coincidental seeing as Fox was once an infamous chicken thief by night.  However, he gave a solemn promise to his wife that he would abandon it forever to lead a more normal and safe life caring for their son-to-be.  Alas, the exciting allure of thievery has a vice-like grip on Fox, so he secretly decides to team up with his loyal opossum sidekick (Wally Wolodarsky) and sets out on a series of daring raids to steal chickens from Boggis, ducks and geese from Bunce, and alcoholic cider from Bean.  Even though he is initially successful, they soon face some heated opposition from the farmers themselves, who will stop at nothing to destroy Fox and company once and for all.  Oh, and there is also a very conniving and dastardly rat (Willem Dafoe) that also proves to be a complicated thorn ion Fox’s side. 

Again, the main artistic drive to MR. FOX is its alluring stop motion animation, which is terrifically complimented by the hyper-naturalistic voice performers.  The film sights may not be epic in scope, but all of the animation's subtle – and not so subtle – blemishes give the film its oddball character and charm (I love how you can also see all of the finger impressions from the animators on the animals hair in various shots; the ugly temptation would have been to CGI out those flaws, but the flaws enriches the film’s quirkiness).   Combined with the arresting visual style is how well Anderson (along with his screenwriting partner, Noah Baumbach, who directed one of the best films of 2005 in THE SQUID IN THE WHALE) sort of subverts some of his more pretentious, self congratulatory extremes that have hindered his past films.  Instead, Anderson maximizes more nuanced qualities that are best suited for this film, which is the acerbic comic timing and delivery and a sense of witty, vivacious, and silly tomfoolery throughout.  The light-hearted energy of MR. FOX is almost too infectious to hate. 

If the film suffers from anything than perhaps it would be that I don’t think it has an idea of what type of audience member it’s trying to conciliate.  Clearly, the adult Anderson-ites that respect and cherish the director’s body of work will be first in line and will, no doubt, appreciate all of MR. FOX’s cultured and intelligently handled dialogue exchanges.  Yet, for as sophisticated and sneakily satiric as Anderson frames the personas in the story, I am quite sure that all of this will be greatly lost on the child viewers in attendance.  Yes, I have long bemoaned how family films have been disapprovingly dumbed down to the point where only wee-little tykes will find entertainment value in them, but the greatest family entertainments are able to successfully straddle between both adult and kid-centric hemispheres.  I am not altogether sure if Anderson achieves that tricky dichotomy here: Lengthy dialogue passages about existentialism, for example, will be totally lost on younger viewers, and I fear that too many will disruptively squirm in their seats from what they don’t understand in the film.  Plus, there is also something to be said about whether Anderson’s trademark sense of comic irony and understatement - and his very hip and swaggering soundtrack that includes the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones – is appropriate to the tone and mood of Dahl’s vision.  Hmmmmm….not so sure there. 

However, the film’s faults are fairly minor, and in the end I found myself being more won over by the audacious simplicity, primitiveness, but unending exquisiteness of the animation; as herky-jerky and peculiar as it looks, it’s lack of refinement scores huge dividends.  That, and the ensemble voice work manages to never pander down to the notion that they are making an kiddie-animated film; it’s refreshing to Clooney, Streep, et al finding just the right balance between being serious and straight-laced with absurdist pathos and light-hearted goofiness.  They never overplay any emotion for cheap effect.   And even though the notion of a live action director turning to animation may not seem all that radical (Robert Zemeckis bested Anderson by several years with his then-bold transition to animation with 2004's THE POLAR EXPRESS), FANTASTIC MR. FOX still represents an interesting and fairly lively experiment for the auteur.  Although the youngest in attendance will be bewildered by much of it, if the adult viewers looks closely, the film captures the bizarre humanism and self-awareness of its animal creatures with large strokes of twisted irony, much as Anderson has done with his less furry and fuzzy characters in his past work.  Like Mr. Fox himself states in the film with a sage-like intuitiveness, "It's like existentialism, you know?  Who am I?  And how can a fox be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?"

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