- Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Mr. Fox – George Clooney
Mrs. Fox – Meryl Streep
Ash – Jason Schwartzman
Badger – Bill Murray
Kylie – Wally Wolodarsky
Kristofferson – Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean – Michael Gambon
Rat – Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip – Owen Wilson
Petey – Jarvis Cocker
A Whimsical Animated Film for Adults and Children Alike
Wes Anderson’s newest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel of the same name. Dahl’s novels, which have helped usher many a disgruntled kid through the travails of childhood, don’t condescend to the young, but there’s an element of whimsy that makes readers want to live in his world. Wes Anderson’s movies, on the other hand, can be hit-or-miss. His films tend toward the pretentious, and he uses a broad cast of actors repeatedly in his movies. Understated line delivery, artfully composed shots, and a focus on dysfunction alienate some viewers while drawing ardent fans from the other end of the spectrum. The combination of Dahl and Anderson proves a winner in Thanksgiving’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, with Dahl’s fanciful novel providing a great backdrop for Anderson’s regimented directorial style.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasant return to classic stop-motion animation, a technique little used anymore. The film went through a long and rigorous production beginning five years ago, and the result is well, fantastic. The sets are beautifully detailed, the puppets’ every hair defined, and each movement is choreographed lovingly (as, one assumes, it had to be, since the film is effectively a series of photographs of puppets). According to IMDb, Anderson used a Nikon D3 camera, which allows for higher definition photography, and the film was shot at twelve frames per second instead of the normal twenty-four. As a result, the characters’ movements are a little jerky, a touch that clues the audience in to the stop-motion animation. The puppetry allows for cute touches (for instance, a “pregnancy glow” is portrayed by an actual fox-shaped lamp). The movie has an alternately surreal and very realistic feel, perfect for the material.
When the film opens, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) raid the neighbor’s chicken coop (as foxes do), and she confides that she’s pregnant just as a trap falls on their heads. Cut to two years later (twelve fox-years), and Mr. Fox works as a newspaper man instead of killing chickens, and their petulant son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) strives to live up to his father’s expectations. Mr. Fox can’t stay away from his foxy nature for long, and recruits the opossum Kylie and his nephew Kristofferson to help him begin executing his Master Plan—to steal from the three biggest, baddest, ugliest farmers in the land, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Unfortunately, the farmers catch on and begin a fruitless attempt to catch the critters as they burrow farther beneath the ground, finding new and different ways to outfox the baddies (pun intended).
By nature the plot is a kids’ story, but in Anderson’s hands, the foxes, badgers, weasels, rats, and bunnies are clad in dapper corduroy suits, living a very civilized life beneath the humans’ noses. There is talk of interest rates, feeling poor, and sports in P.E. class, where Ash struggles to “be an athlete” like his father. Though they’re living quite human lives, the animals slowly realize their talents lie in their own nature—foxes are clever, bunnies fast, moles good at digging, etc. The pleasure is in the incongruity between the civilized costumes and the distinctly wild animal behaviors. As audiences we’re used to talking animals in little animal attire, but rarely do Disney’s cavorting critters (or at least not the “good” ones) indulge their true natures. The Foxes, badger, and opossum are distinctly wild animals, and they kill chickens, ripping apart their dinner with wild furor. Anderson cuts away from any fowl murders, of course, and Kylie the opossum even comments, “there’s blood and stuff!” But nonetheless, it’s amusing to see animals acting like animals as well as taking on human characteristics. If there’s a message here, it’s that we shouldn’t try to be something we’re not.
Anderson fans will love that his directorial style is still present in a medium in which you’ve never seen him before. He has a penchant for title cards, and his films sometimes play as though they’re a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole, which can be sort of annoying in an adult narrative film. Here, though, the material is whimsical enough that it works perfectly. Anderson evidently acted out scenes himself during production, then sent video to the puppeteers and animators overseas. Though this left some of his crew disgruntled, it certainly speaks volumes about the value of our communications technology. Anderson based the film’s set on the town in which Dahl lived and worked, recorded actors’ voices outdoors to add reality to the soundtrack, and included details that show his adoration of the source material.
Though his style can be overly quirky and a bit affected, Anderson’s films generally get you laughing, and this one’s no different. Fantastic Mr. Fox may not appeal to very young children, but Disney’s soon-to-be-released new cel animation The Princess and the Frog should fill that gap. For everyone else (slightly older kids through senior citizens), Fantastic Mr. Fox is a smart, fun holiday release that’s worthy of a watch. And one thing’s for certain: you’ve never seen a movie that looks like this, but you should.