Fantastic Mr. Fox,
and stories with a dry delivery (little wonder that Bill Murray has been his go-to actor). Like Dahl, Anderson also fixates on the complex relationships between children and parents or parent figures.
And so, unsurprisingly, Fantastic Mr. Fox is an uncommonly wonderful film. It’s about a fox (voiced by George Clooney) who retires from stealing hens to become a newspaper columnist at the behest of his wife (Meryl Streep). Oh, but the temptation of the three neighboring farms call him. It matters not that they are run by the three meanest, nastiest farmers in the countryside. Once Mr. Fox regains his taste for thievery, he needs more and more. The farmers eventually engage the foxes in war.
That’s about as much ground as the book covers. It’s one of Dahl’s slightest works, which gives Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, plenty of room to color outside the lines with bright new details. They flesh out Mr. Fox and the entire cast of creatures — Bill Murray’s lawyer badger and WallyWolodarsky’s opossum are the showstoppers— and bring farmer Franklin Bean (Michael Gambon) to the fore as the foe. They expand on a scene in which the animals encounter a rat in a cellar full of alcoholic cider. Willem Dafoe voices the rat, which is now a beatnik with a switchblade who serves as a villain among the critters.
The biggest difference between the book and the film is that the writers give a full story to Mr. Fox’s son, Ash ( Jason Schwartzman). Ash is not as athletically gifted as his father, as shown when he plays whack bat, a cricket-like game with rules more convoluted than those of Quidditch. He strives for acceptance, and faces a major obstacle when his super-athletic, transcendental meditation-practicing cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), comes to stay with the Foxes. The rivalry becomes the movie’s foremost subplot.
Anderson shows an acute sense of how kids operate and proves to be a gifted director of children’s films. Whereas many family movies strive to reach both parents and offspring, Anderson accomplishes it with more dignity than the average family flick. Again, we shouldn’t be surprised. In all of Anderson’s movies, adults act like children and children act like adults, but not in that dumb way so common in animated features, where the adults are idiots and the children are rude to them. In Anderson’s films, each generation actively seeks approval from the others, advice and life lessons flow in both directions, and adults retain a sense of authority while treating children like people. Here, Anderson courts parents not with obvious pop-culture references but with subtleties of character, and he doesn’t worry about going over kids’ heads with sophistication.
The action plays out in the herkyjerky, occasionally surreal style of classic stop-motion animation. Anderson and cinematographer Tristan Oliver ( Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of theWere Rabbit) play up tropes of cartooning, such as putting spirals in the characters’ eyes to indicate confusion (to much hilarity) or Xs to indicate death. Some of the heist scenes work along the horizontal plane with sped-up footage, achieving something akin to a cross between the Super Mario Bros. video game and the opening of The Benny Hill Show.
The movie simply looks great. I was expecting something akin to the enduring 1964 television adaptation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or TheWind and theWillows (the 1983 British television version), especially since some of the animators of the latter film helped make this one. And while there are nods to those creations, Anderson and the animators — along with Oliver and production designer Nelson Lowry ( Corpse Bride)— have crafted a unique world, rich with texture. The grass looks like grass, the fur looks like fur, and the vintage clothing looks like vintage clothes.
This is because in many cases, Anderson opted for authenticity over fluidity. He wasn’t familiar with how stop-motion worked and often rankled veteran animators who worked on the film by making naive suggestions. For example, he was so enamored with the use of real fur in Ladislas Starewich’s 1930 stop-motion film Le Roman de Renard that he wanted to use it, even though real fur tends to twitch unnaturally when used in stopmotion. But the result of this and many similar decisions is that Fantastic Mr. Fox is a puppet show that looks like a puppet show, and as such stokes the fires of imagination. Like the cider in farmer Bean’s basement, this movie is 100 percent pure, concentrated joy.