Wes Anderson has played with animation in the past (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) but never has he created an entirely animated film. This does not seem to have been a problem for the talented writer/director. The target this time out is the 1970 Roald Dahl novel Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson has taken the tale of a fox's fight with a trio of nasty farmers and translated it into stop-motion animation. The end result is a mesmerizing film that is unlike anything that has been on the screen this year. That is not to say it is my favorite, but there is definitely something about the movie that makes it very easy to be drawn into.
Wes Anderson is an interesting filmmaker. He is someone whose films I tend to admire and enjoy to a certain level although I cannot be called a fan. There is always something about them that turns me off. I went into Fantastic Mr. Fox hoping not to have a repeat of my experience with The Darjeeling Limited two years ago. I was happy to discover how much I ended up enjoying this one. I am not sure I got any deep meaning out of it, but the style and Anderson's quirky sensibilities combined into an animated stew that just clicked. It made me laugh, it made me smile, it thoroughly entertained me. It does not hurt that we do not get that many stop-motion animated films.
I overheard a funny comment as my screening began. It sounded like the voice of a teenager. As the film started and we see Mr. Fox standing on a hill with his wife walking towards him the voice says: "That looks so fake." It struck me as an odd comment. Were they expecting a realistic movie about talking animals? The movie is clearly a fantasy and it works great as is. The stop motion gives it an otherworldly feel that suits Anderson's inherent quirkiness.
The story centers on Mr. Fox (George Clooney), who specializes in stealing birds from farmers. His life is thrown for a loop when he learns that he is going to have a cub with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep). This necessitates a change in his life to something a little less dangerous. Of course, you can move the fox from the wild but you cannot take the wild from the fox.
We pick up life with Mr. and Mrs. Fox and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Ash is a weird kid and Mr. Fox keeps longing for his old days of thieving birds. Also in the mix is Ash's talented cousin Kristofferson and a collection of other woodland critters including an opossum, badger, and a rat.
At this point let us welcome Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, a trio of nasty farmers that are near the animal community. Mr. Fox sees their farms as the perfect arena to stage his clandestine comeback to bird thievery. Of course, things go sideways and his actions draw the farmer's attention to their community.
The plot is pretty straightforward. What livens it up is the visual inventiveness. Wes Anderson shot the film with a Nikon D3 DSLR camera at a frame rate of 12 per second. Normal film is 24 frames per second, so cutting that rate gives the film a slightly jerky feel that makes you notice the style. Normally you would think that would be a bad thing, but it works here. It adds to a different feel that this film has.
Fantastic Mr. Fox also is a triumph of design. The sets are sparse but brightly colored and the characters take center stage. I love the visual quirks Anderson injects. Things like Mr. Fox acting calm and rather human-like before tearing into his meal like a wild animal and the hissing argument between Mr. Fox and the Badger that has the two circling each other.
The adaptation was written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). How accurate it is, I cannot say as I have not read the book. In the end, I guess it does not matter as it works as it is. It is a complete tale that is engrossing and involving. It is clever in its execution. For example I loved it when they were swearing and used the word "cuss." Stroke of genius.
The voice work is generally strong with most of the voices turning in solid work with a few stepping above and beyond. George Clooney and Meryl Streep were quite good playing their roles nicely. Then there are Jason Schwartzman and Wallace Wolodarsky as Ash and Kylie, respectively. They were fantastic bringing their respective characters to the proverbial next level.
As enjoyable as it is, I felt that I was kept at arm's length for most of the running time. I loved watching the endless creativity, but I never felt completely involved with their tale. This is a running trend with my Wes Anderson experience. It was a smaller gap this time around, but it was still there and in the end did a little damage to my overall experience. Fortunately, it was not so drastic as to ruin the film for me. I still loved the movie and have no qualms in recommending it.
Bottomline. Endlessly creative film won me over while never genuinely connecting with me. Good voices, great visual flair, and a fun story all make this a movie that is fun and original. If you want to smile and see something that is not a part of the Hollywood machine and is for the whole family, this is it.