Fantastic Mr. Fox
Film review by: Witney Seibold
There is a bristling life to Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that is lacking in many animated features. As animation has leaned closer and closer to realistic-looking CGI, and characters with creepily rotoscoped movements, we have lost the hand-crafted, homemade, human characteristics that drew us to the art form in the first place. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is largely done entirely by hand, and has a wonderfully shabby quality that makes it feel lived in and warm.
To be sure, most of Anderson’s films have this shabby quality to their screenplays, but in most cases it serves as a hindrance as his usual visual aesthetic is one of antiseptic, affected, symmetrical, ultra-mannered control. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” undoes all of Anderson’s usual affectedness merely by scaling back on the adult seriousness (it’s a film for kids) and making the characters non-human (they’re animated).
Based on the book by Roald Dahl, and written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is like a hipster version of the book, but one that doesn’t lose the fable-like qualities of the original. Still in place are the wicked farmers of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guinness, Michael Gambon), who have the best poultry and cider in all the land. Still in place is the irascible Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his hardworking wife (Meryl Streep), as well as a whole menagerie of supporting animals like badgers (Bill Murray), otters (Owen Wilson), and rats (Willem Dafoe). But whereas Dahl’s Mr. Fox was a gentleman who stole to feed his family, Anderson’s Mr. Fox is more like Danny Ocean from “Ocean’s Eleven,” who steals on the sly because he secretly loves it.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox are trying to raise their cub Ash (Jason Schwartzman) in a secure place, and even serve in the animal community. She’s an artists and he’s a journalist. They even have the space to babysit their nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), a character not in the book.
The dynamic between Ash and Kristofferson is Anderson’s strongest contribution to the story, and reveals the imprimatur in all of Anderson’s films: the main characters are resolutely offbeat, and often refuse to compromise their peculiar vision in the face of others, but still long desperately to be accepted into the group as a vital part. Think of Max Fischer in “Rishmore.” Or Royal Tenenbaum. Or Steve Zissou, if you must.
Anyway, it’s not long before Mr. Fox is feeling the itch to return to his old way of life, and begin stealing again. He enlists a mole friend (James Hamilton), and they begin stealing more than they could possibly eat. The thievery incites the ire of the mean ol’ human farmers, and it’s not long before they’re digging up the hill where all the animals live. It then become a struggle of wits and survival, as the character discuss openly their fears and neuroses, while still pointedly keeping secrets.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is, ell, fantastic. Anderson seems very comfortable in the animation idiom, and should perhaps stay here. His live-action characters seemed too sloppy for him anyway. I feel he’d be more comfortable with his tactile, fuzzy little animal people anyway.