Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
Voiced by George Clooney, Bill Murray, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Wallace Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker
Release date: November 25, 2009
My relationship with the movies of Wes Anderson can best be described as strained, to say the least. I have a sympathetic ear for the dysfunction he makes his characters wallow in each movie, but aren’t they all really just singing the same song?; that a family, no matter how damaged and quirky, can get through anything as long as they stick together? He has a definitive style, but more and more I get the impression that he is really telling a variation of the same story and trying to hide it by out-weirding the last one. Considering it to be my loudest objection to his movies, I find it curious that one of the biggest compliments I can give Fantastic Mr. Fox is that it feels like a Wes Anderson movie.
The children’s novel by Roald Dahl that the movie is based on is pretty straightforward. Mr. Fox steals chickens, turkeys, and cider from three wealthy nearby farmers. The farmers band together to try to ambush and kill him. He escapes with his family but ends up trapped and starving. After a spell he hatches a plan to create an underground safe haven and steal from them again out from under their noses while they wait for him to emerge.
While the movie pretty much tells the same story, Anderson’s choice to include elements that weren’t in the book is expected. When a book isn’t long enough to be made into a movie that someone is hellbent on doing anyway, the tendency to add to make it work is usually where things go wrong. When Anderson is given free reign to add as he sees fit, we end up with a bunk excuse for “high art” like The Darjeeling Limited.
From a distance, Fantastic Mr. Fox had all the trappings of movie that is so full of itself it makes you want to puke, a witty story with a hipster attitude that will make you feel dumb for not liking it. Instead it winds up being a movie that quietly asserts itself into the Wes Anderson universe without all that much effort.
You really can’t criticize Anderson for being grandiose this time. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and to a certain extent The Royal Tenenbaums, can be accused of appeasing his tendency for the eccentric for the sake of itself. Here, even the animation is low-fi and he seems so preoccupied by the thought of telling someone else’s story that he mutes his own proclivity for the offbeat. Anderson’s trademark degenerative family is still center stage but there are so many other things working for it that you forget for a minute what you are watching.
What you get it is a funny little story with characters interesting enough in their own right that they don’t call attention to themselves. One that is done with an almost forgotten style of animation soaked with nostalgia while being precise, fluid and beautifully crafted. An animated movie where the voice acting serves as more than just giving the characters something to say – they all add depth that is earnest without so much as a wink to how clever they are trying to be. They are still troubled but not the inconsolable train wrecks you expect. A few degrees one way or the other with any of the moving parts and this could have been another boring pretentious mess but everything comes together and plays off itself so perfectly that the finished product really is pretty remarkable.
Fantastic Mr. Fox will be hailed as the grand return of Wes Anderson and possibly stop-motion animation as an art form. I don’t know if either claim will stick but I’ll let him have his due for now. What I do know is that Fantastic Mr. Fox is everything he’s ever tried to do and couldn’t or went too far and lost.
Just like not wearing the shirt of the band you are going to see, I don’t want to be that guy. The guy who gushes over a movie only to listlessly settle on the descriptive term found in the very title of the movie I am trying to praise. One, because I am not a lazy asshole and two, this movie is better than that. On any given day you will not find a bigger Pixar loyalist than me, but I’ll see your Up and raise you a Fantastic Mr. Fox — this is the best animated movie of the year.
And there’s the rub.