“Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it sounds illegal.”
—Mr. Fox, Kylie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Just as Tim Burton was able to use stop-motion animation to achieve a perfect expression of his gothic sensibility in his 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wes Anderson takes to the medium to make the most Wes Andersony movie possible. After all, his movies are always about the little details—the wallpapers, the ties—and stop-motion animation itself is nothing if not an amalgam of millions of little details.
It’s ironic that Mr. Fox is the film that best exemplifies Anderson’s sensibility, considering that it’s his first movie that didn’t come from an original script and story. For his first adaptation, he sets his sights on Roald Dahl’s classic book from 1970. Anderson preserves the Peter Rabbitesque, stealin’-from-farmers plot and its message about staying true to your (sometimes wild) nature. However, in expanding Mr. Fox’s world, he takes the story out of the realm of children’s entertainment, and instead turns it into a meditation on growing older.
Yes, Mr. Fox is suffering from a mid-life crisis. The smooth-talking hero, with a charming voice courtesy of George Clooney, is close to the age his dad was when he died (seven fox years). Mr. Fox feels nostalgic for his chicken-stealing days, and restless in his 9-to-5 life as a newspaperman. Instead of a sports car and a younger wife, he decides to buy a trophy bit of real estate—in a tree instead of a foxhole—and goes to his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), to talk about the interest rate on the mortgage. Later, he worries if his investment will ever be recouped, after all the money he sunk into it.
These existential problems are neither part of Dahl’s vision of Mr. Fox nor what’s expected of an animated children’s movie. (Later, when Mr. Fox runs afoul of some scowl-faced farmers hellbent on his destruction, the movie veers into more familiar good-guys-vs.-bad-guys territory, with the requisite chases and slapstick, but that’s mostly in the latter third of the film.) Instead, it’s 100 percent Anderson, down to the corduroy blazer with the coordinating pocket square.
You can tell that Anderson loves coordinating every bit of this fox-size world. In “Still Life (Puppet Animation)”, one of the few times we get to hear from Anderson since the standard DVD does not come with commentary track, you can see how he put his stamp on every aspect of the animation. One thing he requested is that it not be too perfect—he wanted to see the fur rippling and boiling to give it a more classic look. He was going for “King Kong,” he says. Fortunately, he gets it—his film has a tactile feel, with smoke that looks like cotton balls and fur you want to reach out and pet, that is hard to come by in other works of animation. Unlike 2009’s other stop-motion masterpiece, Coraline he didn’t have the benefit of 3D to create these effects.
“Still Life” gives great insights into the painstaking process of stop-motion animation. You can hear the animators lament what changes in temperature and pressure can do to shift their whole sets. (When Mr. Fox had a scene in a cider cellar, atmospheric pressure kept changing the level of liquid in the dollhouse-sized cider jugs.)
Other special features on the standard DVD didn’t fare so well—“A Beginner’s Guide to Whack-Bat” just repeats a scene from the movie, in which rules to the fictional sport of “Whack-Bat” are explained, but done slower so as to kill the joke. Better was “Script to Screen”, which goes into the adaptation process. It’s useful to see the original Dahl text along with the final film product. At times that’s the only proof that Anderson didn’t dream up the entire thing himself, it’s that personal of a film.