When I first learned Wes Anderson’s latest project would be an adaptation of a children’s book, I initially thought, “I’m not sure kids will appreciate characters with father issues.” The emotional arc of his prior work is too neurotic for young’un consumption (The Darjeeling Limited in particular). I felt a gnawing concern Fantastic Mr. Fox would bore children at best, terrorize them at worst. Much to my surprise, Anderon crafted a superb children’s movie, one that rivals Up as the year’s best. There’s plenty of entertainment for adults, and Anderson fans will easily embrace the quirky stop-motion animation. Here is a Thanksgiving movie both your niece and cranky uncle can enjoy.
Don’t be fooled by the corduroy double-breasted jacket. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a creature who remains true to his nature. Sure, he goes through the motions of his newspaper columnist job – that’s all to appease Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep). What Mr. Fox really wants is the opportunity to steal chickens. The foul in question belong to Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (Michael Gambon), the meanest, most ruthless farmers around. With the help of Kylie the opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), Fox steals chickens en masse, bandit masks in tow. Fox’s clumsy son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is forbidden to come along, yet the boy stubbornly makes a mask out of a sock, and becomes an accessory. At first Fox is happy he can finally fulfill his primal need. Little does he know the farmers have their own plan. Through fearsome technology, Bean and his cohorts systematically destroy the homes of Fox, as well as neighbors Badger (Bill Murray) and Weasel (Wes Anderson). Fox has no choice but to rouse his fellow creatures for a final epic showdown.
I’ve never read the original Roald Dahl book, though I’m certain Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach capture the author’s unsentimentality and general loathing of adults. Fantastic Mr. Fox does not condescend to children. There’s no attempt to sugarcoat a character’s motives, and sometimes their actions have brutal consequences. I suspect most kids will identify with Ash best. With optimistic resignation, Schwartman genuinely sounds like a child, and besides, who doesn’t remember feeling excluded by the cool kids?
What’s most remarkable, however, is how Anderson’s filmmaking sensibility translates so well into this material. In his previous features, Anderson somewhat defined his characters through their fashion (eg, Chas Tenenbaum’s tracksuit, Zissou’s red cap and speedo). In a kids movie, such easily identifiable outfits ensure children will more-or-less follow the plot. Anderson is also fond of long horizontal tracking shots, so here the camera flows similarly to how a reader might relish an illustrated book. The dialogue is also full of repeated lines and offbeat humor. Kids won’t appreciate Fox’s pontification, yet there are enough sight gags for young and old alike. All the actors bring enthusiasm to their roles. The familiar voices of Gambon, Murray, and Streep resolutely embody Fox’s world. A veteran like Wolodarsky meekly fits in. At the center of it all is Clooney, who speaks with the overconfident zeal of a genuine hustler.
With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson realizes his potential as a unique visual storyteller. Using oversaturated browns and yellows, the animation is otherworldly but not alienating, striking but not beautiful, warm but not cute. The rigid movement the characters amplifies the artifice, yet I couldn’t stop admiring the clever visuals. All around the crowded theater, I saw smiling adults and children jumping in their seats. Few children’s movies accomplish such a feat unless they also employ some sentimentality. Yes, Anderson has a loyal fan base who will always adore his every move. I therefore suspect Fantastic Mr. Fox may become his first universally-beloved classic. Oh, and don’t fret, music lovers! As always, Anderson peppers his movie with hits from the sixties, and there’s even a Britpop cameo.