No question about it, I am a diehard Wes Anderson fan. His last two movies Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited were visually stirring but deeply flawed works, and although I’d be hard-pressed to actually sit and watch either of them sober, I can still get drunk and defensive about them when prompted (and believe me, prompts are always welcome). Thankfully Anderson’s latest film The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a family-friendly masterpiece of sorts, combining Anderson’s trademark visual fair with a more restrained and focused approach to storytelling. There are still little moments of twee goodness, inexplicable and ambiguous scenes of a near-masturbatory nature, but rather than sticking out like a sore thumb they dovetail nicely into the storybook world he’s created. It seems that the more confined Anderson is by the parameters of a PG universe and the necessary limitations of an adapted work, the better he becomes at passionately and creatively devising ways to be unique within a box, and the outcome is quite fantastic.
Based on a Roald Dahl book, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of a father and son who both dream of being more amazing than they already are. Neither animal is satisfied in complacency and they both scheme simultaneously to prove to themselves and friends and family members that they are bigger and better than the rest. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a thief by trade, stealing and killing chickens to provide for his home. His son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is a bit of a runt but dreams of being spectacular someday, even though he’s not particularly certain where his talent lies. In an effort to prove to Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) that he is capable of settling down as a family man, Mr. Fox gives up his life of stealing chickens and starts writing a mostly unread column for the local paper. When the Foxes hit an economic crunch, Mr. Fox plans one last big score on the farms of Bean, Boggis and Bunce, three cold-hearted businessmen, thereby providing his kin with money to afford a better home. Trouble arises when Ash’s cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to visit, providing Ash with constant comparisons to a seemingly superior relative. Mr. Fox’s obvious favoritism towards Kristofferson causes Ash further anguish, and the same sort of openhearted neglect towards his son is likewise reflected in Mr. Fox’s increasingly bullheaded and risky maneuvers while stealing from the three farmers. Once the humans decide to retaliate, the “cuss” hits the fan, leading to an exciting and beautifully animated adventure.
What I especially like about Fantastic Mr. Fox, aside from its often breathtaking visuals, is that Anderson takes care to portray a distinct difference between his human and animal characters. Thanks to a particularly soft-hearted and intimate vocal read from Clooney, Mr. Fox is often easily anthropomorphized to a human level. Yet when he chows down at the breakfast table, it’s clear that this creature is still a beast deep down. Similarly it was interesting to discover how a character whose skill set presupposes a personal affinity for killing chickens and robbing humans blind could be portrayed as a hero. Repeatedly Anderson reminds his audience that Mr. Fox is an animal, and these are the things that animals do by nature. Even when we see him biting a chicken’s neck to kill it, the innocence of the picture is far from lost, and that’s a remarkable balance to be struck in any movie, particularly one designed with children in mind.
The animation, sets and character design are again quite beautiful. It’s fun to watch Wes Anderson’s tactical shot framing and eloquent staging play out in a fully handcrafted universe. In a way this movie is as subtly dramatic and charming as The Nightmare Before Christmas, but while that was a work designed by several complementary visionaries, this one is clearly Anderson’s brainchild (even in spite of complaints from the crew). The voice performances are top-notch, especially Clooney’s and Schwartzman’s. Both actors treat the roles as well as some of their finest live-action work, and the attention to vocal nuance and detail really shines. All the characters are fascinatingly deep to a typical Wes Anderson degree, satisfying Rushmore and Tenenbaums fans’ desire for quirky yet believable dialog. Parents can be satisfied to know that all potential swear words are replaced with the synonym “cuss” throughout the picture, meaning there’s a lot of humorously censored and easily quotable lines throughout.
I highly recommend this picture, and the longer I’ve thought about it the more it has grown on me. While Pixar’s Up is beautifully designed and a wonderful sight to behold, it still followed a trademark Disney formula down to familial death, wacky sidekicks and a nefarious villain. Mr. Fox is happy to throw the audience dramatic curveballs all along the way, and there’s a particularly charming moment at the end when Mr. Fox encounters a wolf that serves as a microcosm of what makes this picture and Anderson so great. Whether we can put the feeling into words, there is no question that the sensations and realizations felt by the characters are real, sincere and work perfectly in the universe. Now if the Fantastic Mr. Anderson can take what he’s learned here and re-apply it to films that exist in the real live adult world again, I’d be a happy clam indeed.