This season has been a peculiar one for family movies – or at least for seemingly family-oriented movies. First, we had Where the Wild Things Are with a few things to say about childhood, but little to offer the children it attracted. Now Fantastic Mr. Fox arrives with more of the same.
Fantastic enticed a family of four to my matinee screening and they sat right behind me, of course. The two small kids were restless as bees, walking about and kicking my seat. During one scene with a farmer seated behind his desk, the girl said, “Mom. I’m tired of looking at this man’s face.” Clearly, they didn’t get what they expected.
No, Fantastic is not a movie for kids. It is an odd, quirky movie about a dysfunctional family of foxes struggling to deal with the father’s addiction to a life of crime and the teenage son’s coming of age. It must be getting difficult for parents to even know what movies their kids will like. Not even an animated movie with cute, funny, furry little animals is a sure thing lately.
Just as Where the Wild Things Are was written by a novelist with a knack for chronicling mature matters like a mother’s slowly dying from cancer, Fantastic was co-written by Noah Baumbach, best known for writing The Squid and the Whale, perhaps the best movie ever about a painful divorce with kids caught in the middle. It’s great stuff, but not necessarily kid stuff.
So, is Fantastic any good? Well, yes, absolutely. I found it a lovingly crafted little jewel box of a movie. It is one of few movies lately where I almost turned right around and bought another ticket. I would’ve happily sat through its rather breezy 87 minutes all over again, right away. I certainly will see it again, eventually.
Fantastic tells the story of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) with his wild-ways of hen-house raiding and careless cider sipping while Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) does her best to reform him, to make a family fox out of him. But, he is too wild. And, as with all heist movies, he needs to pull "just one more raid" on the three nastiest, meanest farmers around – Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.
All the while, their teenage son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) must deal with peer pressures and the need to be just like his dad, although which of his dads he should strive to be like – wild and crazy or responsible – is something he’s still trying to figure out.
The story is quite a lark. It’s all over the place and always slyly, cleverly, even deviously funny. It’s one of those movies where there is a lot going on and nothing stays the same for long, almost like the characters and audience are never meant to catch a breath. It’s a perpetual motion machine tossing out a visual pun or a verbal joke every second.
Fantastic is great to look at. Its doll-like animation is a direct throwback to the old-school techniques used for the creatures in the original 1933 King Kong. And every setting has been constructed like a beautiful little diorama. Director Wes Anderson clearly fussed over every detail, but nothing looks fussy, just foxy lived in.
Fantastic may be a misfire for families with kids, but many grown-ups in the theater without kids in tow were laughing and having a blast. For them, I imagine, and for me, certainly, it’s one of the best movies of the year.