Anderson turns to stop-motion animation and Roald Dahl’s well-known children’s book for his latest, which isn’t as unlikely a move as it might sound. His last three films – ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, ‘The Life Aquatic’ and ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ – were eccentric family fables pitched far away from realism. This is another. Only this time the family are talking foxes and the sibling rivalry (a trademark of both Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach) plays out between two young fox cousins.
Family tension, padded out by a prologue that adds to Dahl’s original, is one of the methods Anderson and Baumbach employ to flesh out Dahl’s slim book. There’s self-aware tension, too, between characters who look like beasts but talk like folk. ‘I’m a wild animal,’ Mr Fox (voiced, naturally, by Clooney) pleads to his wife (Streep). Her reply: ‘You’re also a husband and a father’.
Playful, highly controlled production design is another of Anderson's signatures, and he lends the same, hip visual edge to animation as he does to live action, although unique to this film is a purist’s approach to stop-motion techniques and materials (clingfilm for water, towelling for grass). There are familiar voices aplenty (Murray, Wilson, Schwartzman) and a typically astute soundtrack of music from the Stones to Delerue. Like much of Anderson’s work, it’s cool on the eye and cool on the heart.
Author: Dave Calhoun
By Nick Curtis, Evening Standard
Purists beware. Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s story has been updated, Americanised and generally mucked about with by indie oddball Wes Anderson.
What’s more, in contrast to today’s slick computer animation, the director opts for a jerky, lo-fi, stop-frame style reminiscent of the Clangers. The resulting film, though, is brilliantly eccentric, a cult classic in the making and a bold choice for tonight’s opening gala of the 53rd London Film Festival.
Where Dahl’s Mr Fox was rooted in the English countryside, Anderson’s inhabits a sort of suburban midwest where animals swear, carry cellphones and get their chickens from the five-and-dime. He has a runty, stroppy teenage son called Ash, and a strained relationship with his wife, who detests his raids on the neighbouring (English) farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
We know from the start that Mr Fox retains a wild, roguish side, because he’s voiced, brilliantly, by George Clooney.
It’s all very disconcerting at first, but Anderson’s vision soon bowls you over. He constantly draws attention to the gloriously brittle fakery of his creation.
Though they have great depth, the sets look like they come from a toy theatre. Between hectic action sequences hurried along by a twangly banjo score, the camera lingers long on foxy faces, their fur ruffling artificially. Weirdly, it makes them seem more real.
The word “cuss” stands in for all expletives. Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep) paints landscapes. Mr Fox takes on a street-fighting rat who calls her “the town tart”. I suspect some of the dialogue was improvised by the top-rank cast.
I don’t know what younger children will make of this (the shooting-off of Fox’s tail is played for laughs, not pathos, to secure a PG certificate). But older ones who get it will love it to bits. And if the setting and tone of the tale have changed, the narrative thrust remains the same.
Mr Fox is the free spirit scoring points off the three “equally mean” farmers, here lightly tarred with the brush of big business, and led by Michael Gambon’s laconic, alcoholic Bean.
As the larky individual opposed to the brutish human world, Clooney makes a fantastic Mr Fox.
And though Wes Anderson may have cocked a cheeky leg on some childhood memories, he has produced a distinctively individual work of art and entertainment.
Fantastic Mr Fox premieres at the Empire Leicester Square tonight, with further screenings tomorrow and Saturday.
London Film Festival box office: 020 7928 3232. The film goes on general release from 23 October.
It’s appropriate that the 53rd London Film Festival should open on Wednesday with Fantastic Mr. Fox, an adaptation in stop-motion animation of Roald Dahl’s children’s story. True, its director Wes Anderson is American, as are most of its stellar voice cast, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray. Yet in most respects the film is as British as the festival itself. Dahl, after all, was a British author who wrote the book at his home in Great Missenden, in the heart of the Buckinghamshire countryside.
The film’s setting is clearly British. It was produced in this country, largely at Three Mills Studios in London’s East End. And in homage to Dahl, Anderson and his co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach stayed at the author’s home, Gipsy Cottage, and used the legendary hut in his garden where Dahl wrote his famous children’s books, to complete their script. There are little tributes to Dahl scattered throughout the film: the decor of Mr. Fox’s study in the film and the objects lying around it recall Dahl’s real writing den.
Most crucially Anderson, a fan of Dahl’s books since childhood, had to persuade the author’s literary estate, headed by his widow Felicity, that he should be given permission to adapt Fantastic Mr. Fox for film. In his lifetime Dahl was critical of attempts to film his work (notably The Witches) and since his death in 1990 Liccy Dahl has carefully vetted interested film-makers.
Purists may well object to the American accents that dominate the film: Clooney is the cunning Mr. Fox (whose dapper taste in clothes parallels Anderson’s own). Streep plays the loyal, patient Mrs. Fox, while two Anderson regulars, Murray and Schwartzman, play Badger and Mr. Fox’s son Ash.
Anderson has pointed out (a little flippantly) that foxes do not have accents - though clearly the film’s American voices will make the film an easier sell to U.S. audiences. Yet there are British voices to be heard, in the characters of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, the grasping farmers against whom Mr. Fox pits his wits.
Though his move into animation marks a detour for Anderson, it’s recognisably his film, with its deadpan wit, playful running gags and judicious use of music; there’s a lovely chase sequence early on, set to the Beach Boys’ Heroes and Villains. It’s accomplished work with a cheerful sense of uplift. Not a bad way to kick off a film festival.
(Animated) A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Indian Paintbrush and Regency Enterprises of an American Empirical picture. Produced by Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson. Executive producers, Steven Rales, Arnon Milchan. Co-producer, Molly Cooper. Directed by Wes Anderson. Screenplay, Anderson, Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl.
Mr. Fox - George Clooney
Mrs. Fox - Meryl Streep
Ash - Jason Schwartzman
Badger - Bill Murray
Kylie - Wally Wolodarsky
Kristofferson - Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean - Michael Gambon
Rat - Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip - Owen Wilson
Petey - Jarvis Cocker
The second talking-fox picture of the year, after Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," this one features not genital mutilation, but a leading character who gets his tail shot off. It also boasts some of the most gorgeous autumnal color schemes devised by someone other than Mother Nature herself, animal puppets festooned with actual fur, and a sensibility more indie than mainstream.
It's a curious coincidence that Anderson and Spike Jonze, two of the more prominent musicvid-turned-feature directors, have kid-lit adaptations featuring puppets (albeit of vastly differing sizes) coming out simultaneously, and that both "Mr. Fox" and "Where the Wild Things Are" strive for such hand-crafted, individualized looks. The films may have their problems, but the least one can say is that neither very closely resembles anything that's come before.
"Mr. Fox" is characterized by chapter headings that slide across the screen; trademark Anderson compositions that resemble storyboards and abundant lateral camera moves; a soundtrack that easily accommodates everything from "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and the theme from "Day for Night" to the Beach Boys' version of "Ol' Man River"; and a hirsute male lead who would look right at home on the cover of GQ.
Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) wears a double-breasted, pumpkin-colored corduroy suit, a custard-hued sweater and two stylish wheat stalks peeking out of his breast pocket. His slim, trim wife (Meryl Streep) complements him perfectly, and when he tells her, "You're still as fine-looking as a creme brulee," Anderson's sophisticated following will nod with pleasure while their kids think, "What the heck?"
As in Dahl's 81-page yarn -- whose pencil-sketch illustrations by Quentin Blake (in some editions) could not be more different from Anderson's fastidious visuals -- Mr. Fox's pelt is desperately desired by three nasty farmers whose produce he regularly poaches. Boggis and Bunce and Bean, "one fat, one short, one lean," launch all-out war on their adversary, digging down into his lair before recruiting snipers to shoot on sight.
The geological precision with which Fox and his friends'great escape is presented reps one of the film's visual highlights, as they furiously dig through layer after layer of earth to stay ahead of their enemies' onslaught. Along the way, Fox burrows up into the three men's properties, from which he pilfers enough to prepare a giant feast, while the war continues to the point of becoming a televised siege.
But the overarching drama doesn't interest Anderson and fellow screenwriter Noah Baumbach nearly as much as the family issues. In contrast to the book, in which the Foxes have four largely undifferentiated kids, here they have but one son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who isn't sure he can meet his father's expectations. Joining them in flight are unassertive cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), opossum Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and lawyer Badger (Bill Murray). Plainly set in England, the film maintains a linguistic divide between British-accented humans and American-accented animals.
The thematic thread here pertains to the maintenance of one's true personality and character strengths. When they have a child, Mrs. Fox gets her husband to promise to cease being a wild thing (apologies to Jonze) and become respectable. When he subsequently reverts to his old, buccaneering ways, Mr. Fox must do so surreptitiously, and when he's caught in a lie, his wife is deeply distraught that he hasn't really changed.
But it's his true character that wins the day, and it's a trait Anderson clearly advocates through his own choices. Employing a deliberately unpolished, herky-jerky style that traces back specifically to Ladislas Starevich's 1941 "The Tale of the Fox" but also variously recalls the imperfect but imperishable stop-motion techniques in the silent "The Lost World," the original "King Kong," the work of Ray Harryhausen, Norman McLaren's "A Chairy Tale" and many others, the film achieves a feel that is at once coarse-grained and elegant, antiquated and the height of fashion.
That said, individual scenes often go off in irritatingly self-indulgent directions, especially when they brush upon lifestyle issues, meditation timeouts and too-cute observations.
Much is being made of reports that Anderson was not physically present during the film's actual making in London, that he directed by remote links from Paris. It's also a matter of record that Henry Selick, who created stop-motion sequences for Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," was originally slated to co-direct "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Whatever the case, Anderson's indelible imprint is on every frame here, more for better than for worse.All craft aspects are aces.
Camera (Deluxe color), Tristan Oliver; supervising editor, Andrew Weisblum; music, Alexandre Desplat; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Nelson Lowry; art diector, Francesca Maxwell; supervising sound editors (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), David Evans, Jacob Ribicoff; re-recording mixers, Sven Taits, Steve Browell; visual effects supervisor, Tim Ledbury; animation director, Mark Gustafson; animation supervisor, Mark Waring; puppets fabricator, MacKinnon and Saunders; line producer, Simon Quinn; assistant director, Kev Harwood. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, Oct. 12, 2009. (In London Film Festival -- opener; AFI Los Angeles Film Festival -- opener.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 88 MIN.