Wes Anderson critics have been praising Fantastic Mr. Fox as a backhanded compliment, suggesting this meticulously detailed piece of stop-motion animation is the correct (and by implication, only) venue for his particular, persnickety touch. Yet that’s selling both Anderson and the art form short. This is a triumph on two fronts, an animation masterpiece from one of America’s finest filmmakers.
It’s a kids’ movie too, by the way, only the latest in a string of dazzling children’s features released this year (Coraline, Up, Ponyo, Where the Wild Things Are). The way things are looking, there is a chance movies made for young audiences could take up half of my 2009 top ten list.
Of course, that’s partly because all of these were made for adults as well, or at least have adult sensibilities. That is certainly true of the 1970 Roald Dahl novella on which Fantastic Mr. Fox is based. Dahl’s story, which centered on a charming fox who gets into an escalating battle with the three gluttonous farmers he has been stealing from, was about the ugliness of greed – on the part of all parties. Anderson maintains that theme while adding his usual, damaged family dynamics and existential identity crises.
“Why a fox?” wonders our hero (voiced by George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven mode). Mr. Fox has retired from stealing at the request of Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), but he’s not finding much satisfaction in his new life as a “newspaperman.” (Then again, who is these days?) When the couple and their sad-sack, misfit son (Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman) move under a tree overlooking the bountiful farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, Mr. Fox’s animal instincts return in force.
Despite Fox’s elaborate planning – his “master plan, phase one, side A” is as needlessly convoluted as the scheming of the misguided thieves in Anderson’s heist comedy Bottle Rocket – things go awry. The farmers launch an all-out assault on the foxes, which eventually threatens the entire animal community. Pretty soon everyone else – the beavers, the badgers, the rabbits – also wonders, “Why a fox?”
Visually, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the ultimate Anderson diorama. His critics have accused his live-action films, in which the camera often pans down an elaborate, vertical set with actors performing different tasks on various floors, as being an overstaged form of puppetry. But I’ve always found these set pieces to be ingenious and reflective of the films’ characters. The figures here, of course, are actual puppets, and so the results are doubly ingenious.
The movie’s stop-motion technique is nothing like that of Tim Burton (Corpse Bride), Henry Selick (Coraline) or Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit). If anything, the picture resembles the lo-fi craftiness of Rankin/Bass productions such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Gray cotton balls serve as smoke, while Mr. Fox’s coarse fur shifts slightly from frame to frame – it stutters.
The details are amazing throughout. Anderson and his team of animators don’t take a single shortcut. Instead, they often make the path more difficult for themselves. “Water” flows over a dam in the background of one scene, while a tiny oscillating fan slowly rotates in the far corner of another. When a villainous rat (Willem Dafoe) pulls out a switchblade, it glints.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is more than a technical achievement, though. It’s also, as is usual with Anderson, unexpectedly emotional. There’s a gulf between Mr. Fox and his misfit son that is bridged in an authentic way, as well as more than one occasion in which these puppets shed heartfelt tears. Lest you think the movie turns too sentimental, Anderson and fellow screenwriter Noah Baumbach regularly undercut any sappiness with a curt line. (Mrs. Fox’s reply to Mr. Fox’s declaration of devotion: “I love you too, but I shouldn’t have married you.”)
The praise Anderson has been receiving for Fantastic Mr. Fox won’t be the foundation for any sort of lasting marriage. His detractors will likely return to form when he returns to live action. For now he – and I – will have to take what we can get: begrudging appreciation for a remarkable talent.