[10 March 2014]
I always find the Criterion editions of Wes Anderson’s films rather fitting, particularly given the director’s predilection for creating films that are themselves a preservation of nostalgic images and fanciful whimsies of everyday life. Anderson’s films toy with the border between precocious adolescents and childish adults, crafting carefully selected color palettes that play to both the fantastical and the realistic. That so much of his work ends up being distributed by Criterion, a film buff’s guide to cinema both great and eccentric, is rather fitting. Anderson’s take on Fantastic Mr. Fox is no different.
The film is an extended take on Roald Dahl’s tales of Mr. Fox, his family and friends, and Fox’s predilection for stealing from the horrid trio of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, and extends it out to a form befitting of a 90 minute movie. In a way, Anderson is a filmic descendent of Dahl (though, given the later’s penchant for torturing children in his stories, perhaps a less sinister one). Like the characters focused on by both author and auteur, Fantastic Mr. Fox is pleasing for both children and their parents, though the slightly twisted nature of the jokes will be more appreciated by the adults.
Like Dahl, Anderson seems to have a twisted desire to expose the fallacies of adulthood through the innocent yet knowing eyes of children. The characterizations of Mr. Fox and his friends coalesce with the illustrations that accompany Dahl’s work and the visual library that Anderson fans are familiar with. It’s both nostalgic and modern, delving between fourth-wall crushing irony (the constant asides by the characters, as well as George Clooney as Mr. Fox’s close-to-grating-but-still-somehow-charming signature whistle-click-click) and heartfelt sincerity (Fox’s growth in understanding that his responsibilities to his family go beyond simply stealing food for them). The story, music, voice actors and direction underscore this pure mix of the old and the new.
The story follows Mr. Fox in his ongoing rivalry with the farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean who, in the spirit of 21st century commerce, have incorporated. That’s probably a smart idea, given the losses they suffer due to Fox and his friends. Fox has retired since having a son of his own, but still has that itch to go back to his foxing ways. One last heist causes the terrible trio of humans to retaliate, driving Fox and his friends from their homes and forcing an all out war.
The stop motion work is beautiful in it’s herky-jerkiness, a call back to the less fluid work of decades past that fits the world of anthropomorphic animals. The warm color palette throughout enhances the family aesthetic and, combined with its old-school animation, seems to position this as a movie for cozy family gatherings—if such things still exists. The intricate work of Anderson and his production team, Indian Paintbrush, are highlighted by a 30 page booklet and several key features on the Criterion disc. There’s a reason Anderson’s style has generated such strong opinions amongst physical artists, and the collection of design work, from color swatches to physical models to animatics, highlight the process of movie making as a delicately crafted labor of love.
The vocal cast consists of a collection of Anderson regulars like Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, mixed with first timers like George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Willem Dafoe and Michael Gambon. The actors are split up along national borders, with the Brits being the humans and the Americans playing the animals. Harry Potter fans could easily imagine Gambon’s Bean as a twisted version of Dumbledore. Streep is fine as Mrs. Fox, bringing her appropriate sharpness when needed.
The role of Mr. Fox was written and designed with Clooney in mind, and the character smarms his way from one scene to another, acting like a vulpine version of the Clooney persona—a mix of classical charm, prickishness and self awareness. At times it seems the cast is just there to play extensions of their public personas, and a few actors (Wilson, Dafoe) show up only for a half dozen lines of dialogue that one may wonder why they even bothered.
The music goes full throttle into Anderson’s nostalgia of the pop of the ‘50s and ‘60s, featuring cuts from the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones to accentuate the comic action on screen. It’s all fun, and the music is appropriately upbeat. Jarvis Cocker has a quick appearance, tossing in an appropriate irreverent version of the opening lines of Dahl’s book. There’s considerably less musical cues than other Anderson, and a storybook-esque score takes up the majority of the aural space not filled by the cast’s acerbic dialogue.
Image and sound reach the usual touchstones set by Criterion, highlighting the production design and music noted above. Additional extras include the cast trying to outdo each other in their voice sessions; detailed storylines and an in-depth expose on the animatronics; Dahl reading the original Fantastic Mr. Fox story; and a number of short interviews and commentaries. An animatic version of the film is available as well as a feature length commentary by Anderson and his producers. For those a fan the irreverent nostalgia of Anderson and Dahl, an hour long documentary on Dahl only furthers the inherent connection between the two.
All in all, the Criterion release of Fantastic Mr. Fox encapsulates and preserves that modern nostalgia that Anderson uses. The film itself is fast and fun, but the treasure chest of this edition reveals all the “below ground” hard work, if you will.