By Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)
The painstaking process known as stop-motion animation has brought all kinds of things to life, from that big ape King Kong to the very British Wallace and Gromit, but in the playful and funny "Fantastic Mr. Fox" it goes those feats one better: It reanimates filmmaker Wes Anderson's career.
With George Clooney and Meryl Streep voicing the Foxes, the ultra-sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles of the vulpine world, this adaptation of the Roald Dahl tale does more than occupy its own particular space between the worlds of childhood and adults. It provides a pleasantly cerebral experience, exhilarating and fizzy, that goes to your head like too much Champagne. Not since the memorable days of "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore" has it made sense to apply those words to Anderson. Though the director never lost his hard-core fans, his work had gotten hermetic, even stifling. With "Fantastic Mr. Fox" he's managed to be himself and still let some air into the room.
On the face of it, stop-motion animation is an unlikely vehicle to make this happen. It's a labor-intensive practice that involves the frame-by-frame manipulation of three-dimensional models, a process that's so much like watching paint dry that two or three seconds of film is considered a good day's work. Yet this process was tonic for Anderson, allowing him to create his own very specific environment, complete with animal puppets that had real hair and wore spiffy corduroy jackets based on one of his own and an overall autumnal palette that had no use for the color green. He even found places for his usual cohort of actors, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, as voice talent.
Working with co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach on the droll Dahl novel, a childhood favorite of the director's as well as the first book he owned, allowed Anderson to connect with a congenial sensibility and to expand on the plot. He finds space, for instance, for the odd diversion like "whack-bat," a complex game no one can understand, as well as the dysfunctional family dynamics of which he is especially fond.
The basic thrust of the book, however, remains the same, and that is the battle of wits between the larcenous title character and the combined forces of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who are not a pugnacious law firm but "three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers" in Mr. Fox's part of the world.
Mr. Fox is introduced doing pre-hunt calisthenics to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" by the Wellingtons, just one of the numerous eclectic artists, including Burl Ives, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Bobby Fuller Four, whose work enlivens the soundtrack.
Impending fatherhood forces Mr. Fox to seek less dangerous employment, and, in the elegant words of a British critic, he "forsakes thievery for journalism," ending up writing the Fox About Town column for a local paper called the Gazette. Feeling a midlife crisis coming on, Mr. Fox consults with Badger the lawyer (Murray) and moves the family from their safe hole to an exposed beech tree. And, working with Kylie the opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), an old partner in crime, he plans that gangster movie staple, one last job, that will set him up for life. Or so he hopes.
Meanwhile the Fox's son, Ash (Schwartzman), is having problems of his own. Worried that he can't measure up to his father, he is further demoralized by the arrival of his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director's brother), a great athlete and a deep thinker.
As voiced by Clooney, Mr. Fox is indeed a tough act to follow. He's a suave James Bond type who is also given to typically Anderson-like metaphysical speculation on the order of "I think I have this thing where I need everyone to think I'm this quote-unquote fantastic Mr. Fox."
As that rumination indicates, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" runs the risk of sounding a little too arch, so having key characters being animals is a big help in keeping things grounded. Though he says, "I've got mixed feelings about that" as often as he can, Mr. Fox and his brood literally tear into their food like savage beasts. "I'm a wild animal and a husband and father" our hero declaims, and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" succeeds because of its ability to strike the right balance between those poles.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a proudly analog animated entertainment, making its handmade way into a marketplace glutted with digital goodies. Next to the three-dimensional, computer-generated creatures that swoop and soar off the screen these days, the furry talking animals on display here, with their matted pelts, jerky movements and porcelain eyes, might look a little quaint, like old-fashioned wind-up toys uneasily sharing the shelf with the latest video game platforms.
At times this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s slender anti-fable — truer to the spirit than to the letter of the source — does not even look like a movie. In spite of the pedigreed voices (Meryl Streep and Bill Murray, along with George Clooney in the title role), it feels more like an extended episode of what progressive educators call imaginative play. The sets might just as well have been built out of available household stuff, the stiff figurines animated and ventriloquized on a classroom or bedroom floor by precocious children.
All of which may only be another way of saying that this is a Wes Anderson film. The spirit of self-conscious juvenile playacting has informed his work from the start, providing a theme for “Rushmore” and a sensibility for everything else.
His live-action subjects often move like stop-motion figures through landscapes that resemble drawings and models more than real places. (Think of the cutaway ship set in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”) There is a deadpan, understated quality to his performers that also suggests puppetry, and he shows a stubborn reluctance to let story take precedence over style.
So “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which Mr. Anderson wrote with Noah Baumbach, and which he has been hoping to make for many years, is in some ways his most fully realized and satisfying film. Once you adjust to its stop-and-start rhythms and its scruffy looks, you can appreciate its wit, its beauty and the sly gravity of its emotional undercurrents. The work done by the animation director, Mark Gustafson, by the director of photography, Tristan Oliver, and by the production designer, Nelson Lowry, shows amazing ingenuity and skill, and the music (by Alexandre Desplat, with the usual shuffle of well-chosen pop tunes, famous and obscure) is both eccentric and just right.
Is it is a movie for children? This inevitable question depends on the assumption that children have uniform tastes and expectations. How can that be? And besides, the point of everything Mr. Anderson has ever done is that truth and beauty reside in the odd, the mismatched, the idiosyncratic. He makes that point in ways that are sometimes touching, sometimes annoying, but usually worth arguing about. Not everyone will like “Fantastic Mr. Fox”; and if everyone did it, would not be nearly as interesting as it is. There are some children — some people — who will embrace it with a special, strange intensity, as if it had been made for them alone.
Roald Dahl’s books, suspicious of authority and repelled by conformity, full of unruly energy and wanton invention, have a similar appeal, though Dahl’s imagination was more aggressive than Mr. Anderson’s. The director has made the material his own by winding some of his characteristic preoccupations around the spare, spiky architecture of the book, turning Dahl’s tale of woodland derring-do into another melancholy, comical study of the dynamics of a loving, difficult family.
The patriarch, old Foxy himself, is a charmer and a scapegrace, perhaps not as floridly untrustworthy as Royal Tenenbaum, but not exactly a paragon of responsibility either. After a few near misses — and with a newly pregnant missus (Ms. Streep) — Mr. Fox retired from the hazardous business of poultry killing and went into newspaper journalism. In enchanted talking-animal fairyland, that is apparently a thriving profession, and those of us in journalism who soon may be stealing chickens out of desperation may envy Mr. Fox the luxury of doing it for love.
A sense of thwarted ambition — perhaps something of a vulpine midlife crisis — sends him back into the fortified feedlots and coops of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, the three farmers immortalized in schoolyard rhymes as “horrible crooks, so different in looks” who are “nonetheless equally mean.” The voice of Bean, their nasty, cider-drinking ringleader, is supplied by Michael Gambon, and their escalating response to Mr. Fox’s raid supplies the movie with its basic narrative engine. Will they succeed in catching Mr. Fox and his friends? Or will he brilliantly escape their diabolical designs?
The answers to these questions are not really in doubt, and perhaps for that reason Mr. Anderson and Mr. Baumbach often seem to lose interest in them. Instead they delve into the social and familial relationships that define Mr. Fox’s world, with particular attention to the rivalry between the Foxes’ only son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and a visiting cousin named Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).
Kristofferson is a golden child, handsome and athletic, with the special sadness that in Mr. Anderson’s universe, is the burden of the gifted. Ash, meanwhile, is both jealous of his cousin and unsure of his father’s love.
And the father manages, in his charming way, to endanger the lives of everyone dear to him — not only his family, but also friends, like Badger (Mr. Murray) and Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), a mole who becomes Fox’s accomplice. Fox’s recklessness is part of his magnetic appeal, of course, but it also strains his marriage and shadows him with an ethical ambiguity unusual in a children’s movie.
Which maybe this isn’t after all. (There is one scene, in which a character dies a violent death, that may be too chilling for some younger viewers to handle.) But at the same time it is precisely the movie that a child smitten with Roald Dahl’s fiction and fascinated by the enigmas of the adult world would dream of making: something to amaze and terrify the grown-ups and win the envy and adulation of his peers.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has danger, sorrow and an awareness of mortality.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Mr. Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl; animation director, Mark Gustafson; director of photography, Tristan Oliver; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Nelson Lowry; produced by Mr. Anderson, Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin and Jeremy Dawson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes.
WITH THE VOICES OF: George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Jason Schwartzman (Ash), Bill Murray (Badger), Wally Wolodarsky (Kylie), Eric Anderson (Kristofferson), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Willem Dafoe (Rat), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip) and Jarvis Cocker (Petey).
By Stephanie Zacharek (Salon)
There should be something incongruous about the sound of George Clooney's cashmere-flannel voice coming from the mouth of a somewhat rangy-looking fox in a country gent's corduroy suit: Why should a matinee idol suffer the indignity of being trapped in a puppet's body? But from the first minute of the Wes Anderson stop-motion-animated feature "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Clooney is that creature, the genuinely fantastic Mr. Fox of the title, a rapscallion charmer who wears many hats: husband, father, newspaperman, chicken thief. It's one thing for an actor to feel comfortable in his own skin; it's another for him to feel completely at home in the body of a fake-fur and metal-armature vulpus vulpus. And yet Clooney's naturalism is of a piece with the joyous, marvelously detailed movie around him, adapted from Roald Dahl's novel with adventurousness and seemingly boundless love by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is possibly the finest picture about family, community and poultry thievery ever made.
Early in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," the youthful, wily Mr. Fox learns that Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) is pregnant. He vows to quit his life of crime and start making an honest living, the better to care for his new family. Fast-forward several fox years: Mr. Fox is now a newspaper reporter, and the dapper-yet-casual cords he used to wear appear to have been put in storage. Now his skinny arms, with their furry elbows, dangle from the awkwardly utilitarian short-sleeve shirts he now wears. Mrs. Fox is happy enough in the hole in the ground where the family now lives. But Mr. Fox wants more: He likes trees, grass, action. And so he leaves for work one day -- first casting a baffled glance at the superhero-cape and pants-tucked-into-socks outfit his weirdo son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is wearing -- and goes straight to see his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), to investigate the possibility of purchasing a new home beneath a shady tree.
Clearly, it's midlife-crisis time for Mr. Fox, who not only moves his family into that new home but reenters a life of crime, enlisting the help of a spacey possum, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), to infiltrate the fortresses of three very rich, and very mean, local farmers: Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and, the nastiest of them all, Bean (Michael Gambon). Before long Mr. Fox's mild-mannered, yoga-enthusiast nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), a gifted natural athlete, is also reluctantly pulled into the act, to the annoyance of the scrawny, disaffected kit Ash, who yearns to be a star at something and feels he's good at nothing.
Dahl's novel is slim and exciting: It covers, in a very small number of pages, the Fox family's efforts to dig themselves deeper and deeper into the ground in order to escape the farmers, who have become obsessed with destroying them. Other woodland animals have also become displaced by the farmers' aggressive mania, and so Mr. Fox and his family, in addition to saving themselves, come to the aid of their homeless neighbors. They do this, of course, by stealing -- this is, after all, a Roald Dahl story, with all the vaguely disreputable pleasures that implies.
There's a crotchety generosity to Dahl's work, too, which Anderson and Baumbach have captured perfectly here. To fill out a feature-length movie, they've had to expand upon and embroider Dahl's story, but they've done so without bloating the picture or overloading it. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" feels colloquial and modern: When we first meet Mrs. Fox, she's wearing an Indian-style tunic decorated with braid embroidery, a favorite hip-mom uniform among young mothers everywhere. And Mr. Fox, early in the film, explains apologetically, "I used to steal birds, but now I'm a newspaperman," perhaps a reflection not just on his lost, wild youth, but on the fact that he's moved on to a profession that's pretty much facing extinction itself.
But "Fantastic Mr. Fox" also shows a sense of protectiveness toward the past, largely because of the somewhat rough-looking, slightly jerky (by digital-animation standards, at least), folk-art-style stop-motion animation technique Anderson has chosen. The puppets, with their kind-of-crazy eyes and even crazier whorls of fur, capture the spirit, if not necessarily the specifics, of the cheerful, mildly insane Quentin Blake illustrations that accompany Dahl's text. Anderson and his team (including, of course, a large crew of animators, as well as production designer Nelson Lowry and director of photography Tristan Oliver) pay a great deal of attention to texture and movement: The animals' fur swirls every which way, in accordance with their movements; even Mr. Fox's suits were reportedly modeled on the corduroy and tweed ones Anderson himself favors. (The puppet makers went so far as to obtain fabric swatches from Anderson's tailor.)
Anderson also has a great deal of fun contrasting his fantasy foxes with their real-life counterparts in nature: His foxes walk and speak with the most elegant manners -- it doesn't hurt that the structure of their legs makes it look as if they're walking on tiny high-heels. They hover over exquisitely prepared platters of food, savoring the delicate blend of aromas -- and then descend upon them, suddenly realistically foxlike, snuffling and snarfling and sending food flying all over the place.
There's so much to look at, and to giggle over, in "Fantastic Mr. Fox": It has style and wit and heart, without ever being overly whimsical, a trap Anderson has too often fallen into. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" could turn out to be the one movie Wes Anderson naysayers end up loving, and the one his loyal fans treat as a lesser accomplishment, a trifle. Anderson has always frustrated me: On the plus side, I can sense that he tries to work from the heart, and he certainly cares about craftsmanship. But nearly all of his movies, until now, have suffered from self-conscious quaintness, and their flat, homespun quirks have left me cold. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is different: The story is a great canvas for Anderson's visual inventiveness (offering, for one thing, lots of opportunities for those cozy, dollhouse-style cross-section views he loves, showing various creatures going about their routine daily activities). It also revisits, in subtle and wonderful ways, many of Anderson's key themes, among them the prickly pleasures of being part of a jovial, like-minded community -- or of a mismatched family. In one of the movie's loveliest moments, the cousins Ash and Kristofferson, unable to breach their differences, fume and argue in their cramped, shared bedroom. Unable to sleep, they creep out of their beds to watch a tabletop model train clickety-clack around its track in the darkness, momentarily distracted and enthralled by the blinking colored lights and the soothing, tinny whir of its engine.
I'm not sure I can explain why Anderson's trademark dry, clever patter seems less tortured, and so much funnier and more believable, when it's emerging from the mouths of animal puppets with scruffy, disarranged fur. But "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is one of the few recent movies I can think of that truly captures the vibe of a childhood spent largely with books. I'm not talking about the overrated notion of "being returned to a sense of childlike wonder," or anything like that. I'm talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience: Looking at all the details in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -- the character's wayward whiskers, their little vests, the mansionette hideaways they've dug for themselves in the ground -- brought back the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter's rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is an intricately detailed and accomplished piece of work. (It amazes me that 2009 has brought us not just one but two dazzling stop-motion-animated pictures, the other being Henry Selick's gorgeous and spooky "Coraline," adapted from Neil Gaiman's equally terrific children's novel.) And yet what's wonderful about it is how casual and free, how un-fussed-over, it feels. Anderson is clearly taking a stand against the strained realism (make that "so-called realism") of digital animation, up to and including the repellent motion-capture technology that has turned the once-fine filmmaker Robert Zemeckis into a zombie. And in the end, Anderson's picture is more wondrous in the ways that count, more palpably believable within its fantasy world, than anything Dreamworks and -- yes, I'll say it -- Pixar (with the notable exception of Brad Bird's projects) has come up with.
As a work of animation, and of art, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is wily, clever and mischievous, without ever being too arch or knowing. It also has the distinct aura of something that's been made entirely by hand with care and affection -- a few misshapen nubs here and there only add to the charm. Anderson has pulled off the most elusive of goals: He's made a nonchalant masterpiece, a movie that feels dog-eared and loved before it's even reached our hands.