Roald Dahl has always been the anti-Dr. Seuss. For all the lessons illustrated and celebrated by the late Theodor Geisel, his UK compatriot took a much darker and demented trek. Like the Brothers Grimm, Dahl delighted in mixing the fiendish with the fairytale, resulting in a combination that was both quirky and comforting, allegorical and anarchic. While many of the movies made of his work – The Witches, Matilda, Willy Wonka/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – have been well received fan favorites, few have capture the underlying mischievousness of his motives…until now. It’s taken the master of literate idiosyncrasy – Wes Anderson – and the forgotten majesty of stop motion animation to realize the crackpot bliss of Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Indeed, this may be Mr. Rushmore‘s most accomplished work to date.
When we first meet the title character (George Clooney), he is promising his pregnant wife (Meryl Streep) that he will give up his life as a chicken thief and settle down. Several years later, Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist with a distant, disaffected son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman). While he misses the fun and danger of being a rogue, his family needs him to be reasonable and reliable. Then the Foxes move right next door to the three biggest farmers in the valley – Boggis (poultry), Bunce (game), and Bean (cider) – and our patriarch can no longer control himself. With the help of an opossum named Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), he begins a series of nightly raids. He also brings along recently arrived nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), who’s far more accomplished and athletic than his own youngster.
When the bumbling humans discover what is happening to their inventory, they decide to destroy Mr. Fox. After trying every trick in the book to trap and/or kill him, the men decide to isolate him from his food source and starve him out. With the help of family lawyer Badger (Bill Murray), Fox and the rest of the valley escape to the sewers. There, our hero plots a way of taking back his home from the angry agriculturalists. Along the way, he will have to regain his wife’s trust, his son’s respect, and the desire to return to the straight and narrow, never to steal or give into his animal “instincts” again.
While it takes a while to get going and aims for a decidedly adult demographic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox remains one of 2009’s animated treasures. It’s a wholly unique piece, a contemporized take on Dahl’s 1970 book with as much interpersonal angst as kid-friendly fun. Anderson, adapting along with The Squid and the Whale‘s Noah Baumbach, makes the wise decision to lace the original story of animals vs. humans with the up-to-date dilemmas of families and fathers to delivers a potent combination. Again, it takes while to sync up with Anderson’s arguably weird vibe. It’s not everyday that we see an anthropomorphized fox arguing with his spouse over the success of his writing, or his inability to connect to his kid.
Luckily, Clooney is in charge of our hero, and he makes the most of the clever casting. While his standard studio system charm is firmly in place, the character design makes Mr. Fox into something other than a completely cool customer. There are times when we can see fear on the furry creature’s face, when disappointment and despondency takes over for what it typically Clooney’s ice man machismo. It’s all part of the magic inherent in stop motion. Instead of being a smooth CG canvas, or a pure pen and ink medium, the physicality of the form – and Anderson’s artistic manipulation of same – turns the performances into something special. So does the directing decision to use extreme close-ups. The realistic look to the animals helps balance out the “humanizing” nature of the shooting style.
There’s also great work here by Schwartzman and Chase Anderson as two sides of the progeny coin. The former is a frail, unfocused youth who’d rather be a superhero than fall into the conformity of adolescence. With his expressive, youthful voice, Schwartzman really sells the boy’s blatant unhappiness and frustration. On the other side is Kristofferson, a collection of childhood clichés moderated by a similar feeling of being misplaced and lost. Of course, the visiting relative is literally uprooted from his home, forced to fend for himself in a setting where he’s easily scapegoated into being a surrogate son and a source for blame. In between, Anderson adds ample slapstick (thanks to the villainous farmers), some clever in-jokes, and a soon-to-be-schoolyard catchphrase that substitutes for swearing.
But it’s the look and feel of the film that really puts The Fantastic Mr. Fox over the top. Anderson explores the possibilities of the genre, adding touches of indie surrealism and matter of fact farce to the mix. The animals are all special, each one offering their own unique visual and personality conceits. Special mention must be made to Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. Both show up in decidedly minor roles and yet completely win us over with their cartoon compunction. But it’s the main players who pull us through the movie’s maze of narrative intricacy and individual highlights. Without the work of Clooney, Streep, and the rest, we’d have a lovely to look at experiment that often fails to hit its emotional marks.
By the time of the action packed finale, a standoff between our brave little critters and the mean old men who would wear their pelts as accessories, Anderson has completely won us over. Unlike the work of Pixar, Disney, or a dozen other slaves to technology, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is reminiscent of 2009’s other amazing example of imagination – Henry Selick’s captivating Coraline. The tactile nature of the medium, along with the superb storytelling and sense of humor render both films part of the artform’s best. While it may seem strange to celebrate a movie made up of foxes, rats, moles, badgers, and belligerent humans, there’s a joy and a genuineness to what Anderson has achieved that goes to the very heart of cinema. Roald Dahl may not have approved of the liberties taken with the adaptation, but The Fantastic Mr. Fox more than lives up to its title. It is indeed extraordinary.