More wild things

Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adaptation is fantastic

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Tinseltown. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t nearly as widely known as Where the Wild Things Are, but Wes Anderson’s film version of it has much in common with the recently released adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic kids’ book. For one, it’s also a film made as much for adults as kids. And, it also shares the theme of uncorking the individual wildness bottled up inside each of us.

Just as director/animator Henry Selick did with Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach in 1996, Anderson has gone the stop-motion animation route for the story of Mr. Fox.

George Clooney heads an all-star voice cast as the titular Mr. Fox, a man/fox who is unsatisfied with the drudgery of family life, living safely underground and merely paying the bills as a newspaper columnist. So, he moves the family into a conspicuous luxury treehouse near the intersection of three mean farmers—Boggis, Bunce and Bean—and gives into the temptation to return to his wild nature by poaching poultry and produce from his dangerous new neighbors. This naturally leads to big problems for him and his family as well as the rest of the wild critters in the area.

Anderson’s visuals are wonderful, with a rustic tone set amid real, small-scale vegetation and an orangey harvest hue that permeates much of the film. The detailed manipulation of the tiny puppets—down to the irritated fluttering of a fox’s ear—is mind-boggling, and when coupled with the actors’ sweet characterizations, and the individual quirks of the animals (the weasel’s blank spiral eyes, the foxes’ violently thrashing eating style) makes for seamless and pretty irresistible fun.

The big voices of Clooney, Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Bill Murray (Mr. Fox’s badger accountant) and Willem Dafoe (Fox’s nemesis the rat) are all put to work utilizing the familiar dry dialogue and subdued pacing (some critics would say flat and stilted) that marks Anderson’s films, and the method turns out to be especially well suited to the deliberate movements inherit to stop-motion animation. Jason Schwartzman is an Anderson fave in this regard, and as Mr. Fox’s awkward teen son Ash, his character’s well-timed, soft-spoken interjections (“Because I’m little”) and asides are priceless.

The story is straightforward enough (but pretty scary in parts) for kids and, though fairly telegraphed, is intelligent enough for parents. And the message of finding your specialness while coming to terms with your limitations is invigorating and worthwhile for both.