No fox paws
All of director Wes Anderson’s cool quirks and characteristics follow him into the land of stop-motion animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox, an eye-popping, hilarious adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’ book. This is essentially a Wes Anderson movie (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket) where eccentric humans are replaced by eccentric figurines. It even has the trademark awesome Anderson soundtrack featuring artists like the Rolling Stones and Jarvis Cocker.
The title character, a plucky fox, is voiced by the eternally funny George Clooney, who embodies Mr. Fox with a devilish charm and sense of humor. Mrs. Fox is voiced by the soothing vocal strains of Meryl Streep, and that’s a pretty good cast pedigree right there. Throw into the mix the likes of Anderson mainstays Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, as well as Michael Gambon as an evil farmer, and you have one of the year’s better acting ensembles.
The actors aren’t just providing vocals for a cartoon characters. The characters the puppeteers have created are vital, emotional organisms that shed very realistic tears when troubled. Their fur often ruffles the way King Kong’s did over 70 years ago—caused by the puppeteer’s finger impressions as they adjust the figures for each shot.
The plot is, not surprisingly, quite simple: Mr. Fox, after promising his wife he wouldn’t steal birds anymore, has settled into a humdrum life as a newspaper columnist. In order to spice things up, he begins a three-part caper to steal from evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Fox’s son Ash (Schwartzman, in perhaps the film’s funniest performance), a diminutive Fox with self-esteem issues, wants in on the action, yearning for his sly pop’s appreciation.
The three farmers, spectacularly crafted human puppets, conspire to capture and kill Mr. Fox and his animal henchman. The critters burrow deep into the earth and capture the attentions of local media. They even inspire a campfire song by Bunce’s friend Petey (Jarvis Cocker) called “Petey’s Song,” which becomes the foundation for a hilarious sequence where Mr. Fox and his team break into the farms and do victory dances. The physical actions—dancing, finger snapping—of all the puppets in the sequence are priceless.
Anderson wrote the screenplay, and the dialogue is delivered with the same cadence that makes his live action films so endearing. The cool pauses, the dry wit and clever humor are all in full effect. The way this movie comes together is a testament to Anderson’s distinctive abilities. It doesn’t hurt that the film contains sequences set to such rock classics as the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” and the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Anderson has always been right on with his music choices.
There is no doubt that this is very much his movie. If an Anderson fan made it to a screening without knowing Anderson directed it, they’d probably start thinking, “This feels like a Wes Anderson movie!” after 10 minutes. Granted good Anderson fans would know what their beloved director was up to and would not be blind to a project such as this, but that’s beside the point.
The overall visual effect of the movie is quite beautiful. From large trees to stylized sewers, not a single movie frame is wasted. The synchronization of voice to character is flawless, giving the movie a nice organic vibe. According to the Internet Movie Database, Anderson recorded the vocals out on location rather than inside a recording studio, contributing to the spontaneous feel of the film.
With this movie and the previously released Up, 2009 has proven to be a landmark year for animated films. While Up is a testament to advancing computer animation technology, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fabulous throwback to the more primitive cinematic arts. It’s also one of Anderson’s best, continuing the director’s impressive motion picture streak. The guy has done no wrong, and he’s conquered the animated genre with glee.