Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)

Coming into the theatres in wide release with all the joie de vivre of a little boy trying to please his girlfriend and mother, Fantastic Mr. Fox is yet another trump card in the quality animated and family film derby of 2009. Like all of Wes Anderson's pictures, Fantastic Mr. Fox dances between meaningful and artificial. Often the directors detractors spend too much time on the latter, and perhaps miss the immense character detail revealed in their diorama surroundings and meticulously selected wardrobes. Of course the stop-motion technique selected to animate the film threatens to enhance the artificial, but somehow, the animators have transcended the challenge put to them to tell the story this way. This is simply the right way to do a Wes Anderson Joint (or rather French Cigarillo). Do the simple thought exercise of imagining this film as a 3D CGI or 2D cel animation affair. After seeing the auburn and honey world in sumptuous detail (right down to a micro-train set and a high-school chemistry laboratory), the thought of it being anything else is simply, well, unthinkable!

George Clooney voices the suave, debonair, and lets face it, narcissistic, Mr. Fox as the neighborhood legend and scoundrel, part Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief, part Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. It is a wise choice that plays of much of Clooney's mainstream film career, elements of Heist maestro Danny Ocean and competent but unlucky Bank Robber Jack Foley and full of beans and clueless-ness Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother Where Art Thou? Mr. Fox is boosting chickens with style and ease like it is simply his mission in life. Which for a time, it is. Upon settling down with a (literally) foxy lady (Meryl Streep), together they spawn a child (Jason Schwartzman) which Fox more or less ignores. Fancying his own charisma and way with words, he writes a 'Man About Town' column for the local gazette which (at least he seems to think in a rare moment of doubt) nobody reads. This would be a fine plot or story set up for an adult thriller/romp from the 1940s, 50s or 60s, so it is curious that this story is subsumed into a 'wacky kids movie;' something which threatens to happen often, but things never quite goes there, as the picture is too busy being a Wes Anderson film. This is probably a good thing. If kids are going to head out to see Mr. Fox with their parents, they'll certainly be entertained by the side-scrolling kineticism of the film, and the interesting visual candy on screen, but they will be also be stretched a little, rather than pandered too. Kung Fu used here is done more in an ironic fashion than anything else

fantastic-mr-fox-rev3The plot involves Mr. Fox, after a few years of tamer domestic life, backsliding into his old burglaries for fun (this despite explicit promises to the wife against this sort of moonlighting behavior). This has the immediate effect of endangering his family and exposing his friends purely to get those old-time adrenaline rushes by sticking it to local farmers with his self-indulgence. (Heist sequences play out remarkably similar to Dignan's high-concept plotting in Bottle Rocket, only that Fox has more panache to pull it off. To further underscore his midlife crisis, he takes a similar risk by moving topside into a big tree, leaving the relative safety of living underground. Finally, complicating things on the domestic front is the addition of a nephew who on the surface has the athletics and natural grace of Mr. Fox, (something acutely lacking from his own progeny), yet not the wily 'bad boy' qualities (which are actually present more in his son although Fox can't seem to actually see it). Whether or not the sibling rivalry, the father-son tensions, or details of buying real estate will sink in to the younger set, may or may not matter. See also, Where The Wild Things Are, the opening chapter of Up, and perhaps an element or two of Coraline make 2009 a banner year for pushing the 'kid boundaries' of films aimed at or adapted from childrens properties.

fantastic-mr-fox-rev2The most intriguing element of Mr. Fox is the animal behavior of the characters. Outbursts of rage and violence by the characters that give the novel attitude of 'here are animals playing humans, but really are animals' that far too often neuters North American animated stories featuring, well, talking animals. A scene involving Mr. Fox with his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray) discussing the value of moving living quarters from a hole in the ground to a hollowed out tree starts out pretty civilized, but ends with both animals snarling and clawing. An exchange between Fox and his wife even involves some blood letting from a slap to the face that resonates in spite of (or because of) the stop motion look of the wound. Heck, Mr. Fox going from sipping his tea to devouring his toast is a big enough indication!

The farmers may be broad stereotypes (Michael Gambon's Franklin Bean is one of the great vulgarian monsters for an actor with a history of playing great vulgarians) but are as much victims as villains (deserving of comeuppance only because of their greed and industrialism attitude). The heroes of the piece are not afraid to let their ugly parts hang out, even little Ash wrangles with an angsty dark side. I suppose that Mrs. Fox wastes a bit of Streep's talent by relegating her to the 'hand wringing and disciplinarian mother-wife to Mr. Fox's man-child, and I would have liked to see more the delightfully goofy Willem Dafoe as a southern-fried-accented rat, but the integration of the Anderson players (cameos from Adrian Brody and Owen Wilson) into simply voice-acting is a successful one.

How much Roald Dahl is in Fantastic Mr. Fox, I will leave for others more familiar with the source novel, but there is no doubt about the amount of Wes Anderson in the film. The set design, use of esoteric pop music, typeface and arch banter (you can almost see the 'air quotes' hang above dialogue exchanges), and sucker-punches of emotion nip/tucked into the story are indicative of Anderson idiom (Think the drowning child in Darjeeling, or Ritchie's suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums or even Ned's helicopter demise in The Life Aquatic). And that ending. Anyone who likes their children movies to have a nice clean moral or message will likely be scratching their head (this is a good thing). Fantastic Mr. Fox is fizzy and frivolous and introspective only insofar as it releases the impulsiveness. It lives in the now. Animals will be animals.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  • Wes Anderson
  • Roald Dahl (novel)
  • Wes Anderson (screenplay)
  • Noah Baumbach (screenplay)
  • George Clooney
  • Meryl Streep
  • Jason Schwartzman
  • Bill Murray
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Wes AndersonRoald DahlNoah BaumbachGeorge ClooneyMeryl StreepJason SchwartzmanBill MurrayAnimationAdventureComedy

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