Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox,

Pasatiempo - - Mov­ing Im­ages -

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.

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