Saturday, December 05, 2009

In Theaters: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox poster and IMPAwards link
The problem with calling your movie FANTASTIC MR. FOX is two fold. If it’s bad, or even mediocre, or even just kind of good, the critic’s temptation is to harp on just how un-fantastic it is. And if it is fantastic, then, well, I can’t go and use the word fantastic without seeming cheesy or uninspired, can I? Sure, I could work in it via a rhetorical device like this one, but that’s not really much better, is it?

Ah, well, they got the title from a book, anyway.

Ahem. So. Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve enjoyed everything he’s put out so far. He’s got a real visual style and an empathy for his characters, and both of these turn out to be positives when it comes to venturing into the realm of children’s animation. Anderson, with co-writer Noah Baumbach and a host of animators who apparently didn’t approve of his artistic direction, has turned Roald Dahl’s beloved tale of survival into a charming and inviting story about aspiration and responsibility, and how these two get in each other’s way.

We first meet Mr. Fox (George Clooney) when he and his wife (Meryl Streep) are doing what foxes normally do, i.e. stealing chickens from farmers. But Mrs. Fox is pregnant, and so in a cut-away past twelve fox years, Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist living safe at home and helping raise his... eccentric son Ash (Jason Schwartzmann). Sick of living in the ground, he buys a home in a large tree overlooking the property of three surly farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guiness, and Michael Gambon, respectively). Ultimately, the chicken hutches, goose smokehouses, and cider storehouses of the farmers prove too great a temptation, and Mr. Fox goes on midnight raids with his possum pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky). This raises the ire both of the farmers and of Mrs. Fox when she finds out. And Ash is getting no easier to live with now that the overachieving cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) has moved in while his father recovers from double pneumonia. So Fox has a lot to deal with.

Before release, there was a lot of apprehension about the extra-crude brand of stop motion used in this film (complete with cottonball smoke effects and what technicians apparently call “boiling fur”), and even the effects people apparently had a dim view of Anderson’s insistence on doing things his way. But from the first scene, not only did I become accustomed to the film’s style, I began to see what he was doing. While most 3-D animation focuses on form, the film’s style places equal emphasis on texture, from fur to fabric to plasticy fruit. The effect is that we’re reminded of every object’s physical existence, and the frequent straight-on camera angles give the visuals a picture window quality, as though we’re looking at a series of dioramas. Stop motion has always had that hand-crafted spark of vitality, and FANTASTIC MR. FOX goes a step further to make it seem like we could reach into the picture. (This actually would have been a good 3-D film.)

The film has a lovely autumnal shade to it, everything in pale oranges and fiery reds. The soundtrack also leans heavily on unpolished guitars and folksy vocals, including an original song by Jarvis Cocker. It’s relaxing, a kind of mellow experience for the filmgoer, with nothing to get too hung up about.

The writing is really sharp, and the cast is so good with the material that even minor exchanges sparkle. Whether it’s Owen Wilson as a coach explaining the rules of Whackbat (which is basically cricket from the perspective of everyone who’s tried to understand cricket), Gambon as the sardonic brains of the farmer trio, or Willem Dafoe as one of Fox’s former partners-in-crime, everyone is just on form. Obviously George Clooney does the most, and pulls it off with his usual quirky suaveness, and there’s Bill Murray as a Badger lawyer, but seriously if I start listing everyone who’s awesome I will never stop.

There’s not a whole lot of what one would call suspense to this picture, at least not until late in the game. But there’s a nice, subtle conflict going on under the main story, and that’s the one between Fox and his own ambitions. He always wants to push forward, to have more than he does, not out of greed but out of a sense of underachievement. There’s a message here about appreciating what you have, but also one of coming to terms with what you are, and with Fox it’s his animal nature; no matter how much he civilizes himself, he’s always going to want to steal chickens and cider, and he has to find a way that he can be himself and not put his family in danger.

In the meantime, though, there are farmers to outwit and chickens to eat, and good times to be had. In a year of fabulous children’s movies, this may actually be the best yet. Sure, it doesn’t have the tearjerker value of UP or WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, but it’s not aspiring to that, and what it does deliver is a just plain pleasurable experience, one worth watching and sharing. See this film. It’s... really very very good.

Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Screenplay by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Directed by Wes Anderson

Grade: A

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