A Primal Struggle
Wes Anderson gets animated
by Molly Templeton
FANTASTIC MR. FOX: Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Cinematography, Tristan Oliver. Production design, Nelson Lowry. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson and Michael Gambon. 20th Century Fox, 2009. PG. 88 minutes.
Wes Anderson is the right person for at least part of the job of adapting one of Roald Dahl’s best books. His Fantastic Mr. Fox is precise, handcrafted, full of off-kilter whiskers, tiny lab experiments, miniature capers, detailed fox kitchens and autumnal fields, walls and clothing (it’s fall indoors and out in this film, which avoids the use of anything green). Anderson’s previous movies leaned toward recreating the world in the image Anderson prefers, but here, in stop-motion animation, the world really is created. From foxholes to farm kitchens, supermarkets to fire engines, sewers to schools, Anderson’s touch is on everything, fastidious yet precisely mussed. Watch as Fox (voiced by George Clooney) carefully cuts an ad out of the newspaper, only to set it aside and ferociously devour his pancake breakfast. He’s a wild animal, as he mentions fairly frequently. He’s also a dapper dresser, a thief turned newspaper columnist in order to provide a safer existence for his wife (Meryl Streep) and young son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman, doing his sulky best).
Two things set off Fantastic Mr. Fox’s plot: Ash’s cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s brother) arrives and is annoyingly good at everything, and Fox has a bit of a midlife crisis. He doesn’t want to live in a hole anymore, and there’s this gorgeous tree for rent. The tree, however, is rather close to the farms of the nasty Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who produce chickens, smoked geese and extremely alcoholic cider, respectively.
The temptation is just too great. Fox enlists the oft-dazed opossum Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) for a series of quickly executed capers that fill the Fox larder. They also get the attention of the farmers, who, led by the lean Mr. Bean (a growling Michael Gambon), wreak havoc on the countryside in pursuit of the thief.
Fox is fascinating to look at, the hours and hours that went into its creation visible in every frame. Tiny animated creatures dig tunnels at crazy speeds, run through sewers and, in one long, incredible shot, prepare dinner by cooking chickens, slicing vegetables and sipping punch. The foxes walk upright and are fully dressed, but they appear constantly on their toes, delicately balanced, as if they could slip back onto all fours at any moment. It’s a visual reminder of Fox’s conflicting impulses: He’s caught between the desire to keep his promise to his wife — no more chicken thieving! — and to indulge his baser desire of having a chicken’s neck between his teeth.
But Fox is the only creature wrestling with this existential dilemma, which makes it feel a bit precious, a bit glib and a touch retro. (Apparently, having a kid was enough to knock the fox-nature out of Mrs. Fox.) Fantastic Mr. Fox, for all its visual charm, is a strangely hollow movie, so busy stuffing its themes into the dialogue that it leaves little to discover. Fox clearly describes his crisis; his wife briefly explains her conflicting feelings about him; only their misfit son, Ash, hasn’t quite got a clear enough grip on his emotional state to describe it in words. (He wears a cape and describes other awkward things instead.)
In one scene, odd and beautiful, a wolf appears. He doesn’t wear clothes, and he doesn’t respond to Fox’s calls. And just for a moment, the film dips into something less carefully nimble, less controlled. The wolf offers a surprising glimpse beneath the ordered, color-coordinated surface of the world Anderson has so painstakingly created. The universe he’s called into existence is gorgeous, but within it, we’re kept at arm’s length, held back as if its creator worries that if we get close enough, we might mess up his lovely tableaux.