Wes Anderson’s stop-motion fable is as fantastic as its name promises
4.5 out of 5 stars
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Directed by Wes Anderson; with voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson. 87 mins. Rated PG. Now playing.
Before you dismiss Fantastic Mr. Fox as just another animated children’s film, take a moment to ponder the talent involved in this venture. There’s the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl, author of such favorites as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. There’s the A-list voice cast headed up by George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
And there’s the fact it’s a Wes Anderson flick to the core, which means the usual quirky attention to detail gets the bonus of limitless possibilities. Even if you’ve never been a fan of the Dallas native’s unusual point of view in films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, or his North Texas-shot debut, Bottle Rocket, prepare to love your first Anderson movie.
Shot in the marvelous — indeed fantastic — medium of stop-motion animation, Mr. Fox pays homage to the low-tech days of made-for-TV fare like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other holiday tales in what I can only assume is a purposeful attempt to be different from the type of polished animation we’ve taken for granted ever since Pixar hit the scene. But to say it’s crude is missing the point altogether.
There’s something so otherworldly about what’s on screen that it almost defies description. The puppets have a creepy realness to them (like using real hair), yet at the same time they seem utterly alien. Limbs are overlong, every movement herky-jerky; to watch them run is a study in awkward delight. Each animal and person is a highly stylized inhabitant of a quasi-realistic environment that often appears as a diorama come to life, what with the film’s frequent utilization of cross-sections of landscapes and dwellings to showcase the action, as well as other interesting perspectives from which scenes play out.
The story itself is simple enough. Mr. Fox (Clooney) steals chickens for a living, but when his wife (Streep) tells him she’s pregnant after they get caught in a fox trap, he promises her he’ll go legit if they live. Two years later (about a decade in fox years), they’re living underground with their oft-referred-to-as-"different" son (Jason Schwartzman). Fox is now a newspaper columnist, but when the temptation to give in to his animal instincts and rob the proverbial (and literal) henhouse once again, the three evil farmers from whom he’s stealing threaten to destroy not just his family, but all the animals in the area.
What results is a perfect balance of relatable pathos and joy with just enough slapstick and sight gags to please the kids who’ve likely come for something a little less nuanced. (Don’t worry, though: They’ll enjoy it unless they have a constant need for fast-paced action. This movie savors moments of tranquility and languid pacing.)
Leave it to Anderson to take voice acting to a new level. Instead of the typical animation model where the actors rarely see each other, let alone record in the same room together, the director gathered the whole cast and sent them on location to a farm, treating it like an elaborate radio play. If a scene took place under a tree, that’s where he’d record it.
Which is perhaps what gives Mr. Fox its edge. The reactions of each character to another feel so much more genuine than spliced together recordings from each star.
What’s most exciting, though, is that they’ve made something of tremendous quality with originality and an unapologetic style all its own. Fantastic Mr. Fox is sort of like the Adam Lambert of animated films … without the simulated oral sex and crotch-grabbing controversy.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 27, 2009.