If, like me, you’re tired of animation being viewed merely as a children’s medium, thank your lucky stars for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is as delightfully odd and quirky as any of his live action films. Anderson’s films have always reveled in picture book mannerisms and cartoonish action, so it should come as no surprise that the transition to animation is effortless. What is surprising is just how deeply affecting it can be.
Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is just as much a cad as Royal Tenenbaum, the incredibly patient Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) his Ethel. They’re not separated like Royal and Ethel, but when Mrs. Fox says soberly, “I love you, but I shouldn’t have married you,” it’s not hard to tell something’s wrong.
Mr. Fox used to be a professional chicken thief, but got out of the game when Mrs. Fox became pregnant with their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). However, he can’t resist the lure of one more job, stealing from mega-farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean). Going against the advice of his lawyer Badger (Bill Murray), Mr. Fox jeopardizes the safety of the entire forest by taking them on.
It takes a certain kind of temperament to adapt Roald Dahl. It’s easy to get it wrong; just look at Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or The Witches for examples of films that simply fail to capture the charm and strangeness of the source material. But like Tim Burton before him, Wes Anderson seems perfectly tuned to Dahl’s wavelength, with his bizarre filmmaking tics, lyrical dialogue, and loving irony.
Take, for example, the movie’s first scene. It opens with the rhyme about Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, then proceeds to slide through a variety of gorgeous hand-crafted sets as Mr. and Mrs. Fox run, leap, and crawl around various obstacles, the Beach Boys backing them all the while. If you had any reservations about the movie, that’s enough to throw them out the window. From there on out, Anderson keeps a firm hand on the picture, never steering it in the wrong direction. It all feels like something out of Dahl, even when Anderson goes in his own direction.
It’s not afraid to tackle the same difficult questions about death and self-worth recurrent in Anderson's films, either. Once Boggis, Bunce, and Bean start hunting Mr. Fox, all the animals are in very real danger of dying, and there’s a beautiful scene where, following the death of one character, Mr. Fox reflects on the path his life’s taken. Up too pondered questions of death, a sign that mainstream American animation is finally starting to take a cue from Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki and allowing itself to have mature thoughts on important subjects without sacrificing the fun and entertainment.
Because Fantastic Mr. Fox is a lot of fun. Wes Anderson has the ability to make me giddy like few other filmmakers, and he does just that with a bulldozer scene set to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” or the brilliant climactic chase sequences, which rival just about anything flesh-and-blood actors have done this year in terms of joy and excitement. The stop-motion animation has a lot to do with that, as it feels real and tangible in a way that most CGI doesn’t. Mr. Fox and his furry band of men (and women) bristle with lifelike fur and move in herky-jerky motions that are as endearing as those in the original King Kong.
The cast brings a lot of energy to the proceedings as well. George Clooney proves once again that there are few people on the planet as charming as he is; even as a fox, the dude oozes charisma. You can understand why Meryl Streep puts up with all of his crazy antics, even as she knows she shouldn’t. Michael Gambon brings real menace to tall drink of evil Mr. Bean, in the way that only someone with a booming British voice like his can. Anderson’s regular players are just as good: Wally Wolodarsky and Eric Anderson (Wes’ brother), who until now have only had bit parts in his movies, get to shine as tree landlord Kylie and preternaturally gifted athlete Kristofferson, respectively. Jason Schwartzman brings the same kind of minimalist jealousy and self-loathing to Ash, who feels overshadowed by everyone’s admiration for Kristofferson, that he does to his HBO series Bored to Death. And one can never forget Bill Murray, who here gives what has to be his most unrestrained performance in years.
It’s nice to know that there are kinda-sorta mainstream filmmakers like Wes Anderson who are willing to stick to their vision no matter the project, because Fantastic Mr. Fox is the most unusual treat in some time. You’d never mistake it for a kiddie flick, but it’s also an unmistakably Anderson picture suitable for the whole family (and I do mean the whole family), which is a first. In a year with several wonderful animated films, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the most fantastic.