As you may have heard, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is, well, fantastic—a witty den of delights that pleases on multiple levels and across varied age groups. Adapted by director-writer Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums) and his co-writer Noah Baumbach, from Roald Dahl’s childrens’ book, this is a film both hipster cinephiles and short-attention-span guttersnipes are going to be cherishing for years to come.
It’s the tale/tail of the titular Fox about town (George Clooney), a former thief who vows to settle down and raise a family with his lovely, patient wife (Meryl Streep) and overly ambitious, underachieving son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). But when Fox undergoes the sort of mid-life crisis even wild canines can’t elude, he slips back into his old ways and begins bedeviling farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. In return for the incorrigible Fox’s pilfering of their prize chickens, squab, and cider, the farmers go on the warpath, sending Fox—and family and friends—on the run. Meanwhile, awkward young Ash must cope with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Anderson), a quiet, yoga-practicing lad whose natural abilities quickly make him the apple of Mr. Fox’s eye.
All of this is great fun, but Anderson’s dryly dazzling labor of love may have a hard time of it at the box office. As much as I and other critics ranted and raved over Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are last month, many parents and kids were turned off by the dark, gloomy, and neurotic undertones Jonze injected into Sendak’s beloved book. And I worry that has some folks gun shy about Fantastic Mr. Fox, fearing another melancholy grown-up film disguised as children’s fare.
On top of that, in the wake of the tremendous stop-motion artistry of Coraline this year, Fantastic Mr. Fox operates on a very different visual aesthetic. Anderson and his director of animation Mark Gustafson are not out to create a seamless display of dazzling visual effects. (Coraline director Henry Selick originally intended to make Mr. Fox with Anderson, but left to do Coraline and was replaced by Gustafson.) Instead, Mr. Fox has a homemade, rough look and feel that adds to the film’s cozy lovableness, but may come off “cheap” to some eyes.
But give Fox a chance! There’s nary a glum moment in this movie’s parade of non-stop deadpan joy and gleeful larceny. Sure, there’s a little of the usual Wes Anderson dysfunction in Mr. Fox’s family. But at no point does the film wallow in pathos or dark subtexts—complete with plans and maps, schemes and diagrams, and lots and lots of digging, this is a gently jaunty Oceans 11 for youngsters, by way of field and stream, fox and fowl.
As for the homespun, herky jerky textures and movements of the animated characters, that’s just Anderson’s usual quirky style singing out—it turns out that the director’s often arch whimsy is nicely mitigated by the use of a puppet medium. And the second-hand feel of the film adds nicely to its easy likability. I’m not knocking Pixar, but after 10 instant classics in a row, there’s getting be a kinda cold flawlessness to the annual Pixar Oscar nominee. I still love Pixar and a few other CG animated movie marvels, but it’s very nice indeed to see Fox (and Coraline) offer up something different—in both look and feel–for a change.
Though drenched in passive-aggressive ennui, Anderson’s live-action films already seem to live in a half-fantasy world of fairy tale whimsy—taking the next step to a fully imaginative world feels natural and right. Plus, Fox deals in the usual Anderson themes: “different” folks trying to fit together as a family, even as they pursue some semblance of “success”—be they extroverted attention-hounds like Fox or sullen messes like son Ash. (Interestingly, this is the first time we’ve seen Clooney really play a family man–arguments can be made for O Brother Where Art Thou and One Fine Day, but he’s a mostly absent father in one and a single dad in the other.)
In addition to a bluegrass twang, the “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and a marvelous Jarvis Cocker ditty, Anderson still has his fine ear for ‘60s rock ‘n’ pop soundtrack, including the obligatory Stones song and some nice use of the Beach Boys’ lost Smile. And amidst all the snappy dialogue and carefully designed clutter, the director retains his touch for the quietly sublime: a brief, almost throw-away scene with trains of several sorts humming through the night is note-perfect in its cool warmth and moving stillness.
All the Anderson regulars are here: Schwartzman is the comedic all-star of the Fox cast; Bill Murray is just as wonderfully droll playing a weary badger lawyer as he is in the flesh; Michael Gambon gives Bean—the brains of the farmer gang—a menacing Bond-villain spin; Willem Dafoe makes for a perfectly skeevy rat; and even Owen Wilson pops by for one scene as Ash’s whack-bat coach. (Whack-bat, you ask? You’ll have to see for yourself.) And special notice is reserved for two of Anderson’s lesser-known repertoire members: his brother Eric Chase Anderson, who gives Kristofferson his laid-back sincerity; and Wally Wolodarsky who steals many a scene as Fox’s easily mesmerized possum sidekick.
Anderson had his cast record their tracks outside on location to escape the sort of “too-perfect” studio sound, and the result is a live radio-play richness in the vocal performances. While the kids will love the film’s daring raids and rescues and its sense of adventure, many adults would probably be happy to just sit and listen to Clooney and Streep’s banter. And those who’ve been seduced by Gorgeous George’s Cary-Grant looks and charm in the past will be reminded how much of his appeal is fueled by that velvet-brandy voice. As with Danny Ocean, that voice soaks Fox’s magnetism and dazzle in a suave recklessness and (mostly) unflappable confidence.
As delightful as I find The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as rich as its charms, the film still feels more like a lovely lark than a full-blown masterpiece. But don’t let that mild equivocation stop you from slipping on a discount bandit hat, grabbing some blueberries for the beagles, and slipping out with Fox and friends. A lark this cussin’ good is absolutely to be treasured.