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Friday, April 1, 2011
'Fantastic Mr. Fox'
Anderson and Clooney follow the law of the farmyard
Wes Anderson, a director known for the laconic preppie chic of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic," turns his hand to animation with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," an adaptation of an idiosyncratic children's tale by Roald Dahl. Cinema has been kind to Dahl, with inspired adaptations by Henry Selick ("James and the Giant Peach") and Tim Burton ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), and Anderson's contribution certainly keeps the streak alive.
Anderson flirted with stop-motion animation previously in "The Life Aquatic" — with a sequence supervised by Selick — and his decision to plunge into a feature-length production makes sense: Anderson's cinematic worlds have always revealed an obsession with style and detail, where each prop, each costume has to be just so. Animation allows the director to indulge this tendency to the nth degree with wonderfully humorous results.
Selick had been slated to be animation director for this film, but moved on to make "Coraline" instead when Anderson's film was stalled in development; replacing him is Mark Gustafson, not well known as a director yet, but an animator with a long career in claymation at Will Vinton Studios who certainly proves up to the task.
Indeed, there's been some controversy as to how much Anderson — who has no animation experience — was actually involved in the production. Rumors had him holed up in a Parisian apartment and communicating with his director of photography and animation crew via his iPhone. But that's kind of like pointing out that Brian Eno doesn't play an instrument in U2; Anderson's sensibility is stamped all over the film's look and humor, and the screenplay is the result of his collaboration with Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale").
Mr. Fox, a debonair orange-furred critter in a slim-cut corduroy suit — looking rather like Anderson's own style — is a reformed chicken thief who now pens a newspaper column and lives with his wife and son in a cozy old tree-hollow flat. The call of the wild is strong, however, and Mr. Fox resolves to make one last heist, hitting all three farms owned by the grotesque trio of farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
This doesn't work out quite as planned, and Mr. Fox finds his family and friends threatened when the farmers lay siege to his home. Further complicating things is Fox's tendency to belittle his son, Ash, though an unreliable, distant father figure is something of an Anderson trademark, from "Rushmore" on.
The film's best joke may be having George Clooney voice Mr. Fox, adding an element of "Ocean's 11" parody to the proceedings; there's something about hearing that smooth, suave voice of Clooney attached to this huge fang-baring foxy grin that's irresistibly silly. The voice cast also features Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox, Jason Schwartzman as Ash and Bill Murray as Fox's attorney, Badger. Willem Dafoe, as a hissy rat who defends Bean's secret cider cellar, is magnificently over the top, while Wes' brother, Eric Chase Anderson, voices Kristofferson, Ash's yoga-obsessed cousin (reportedly based on singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson.)
The film is also loaded with all sorts of great absurdist jokes, from a farmer who lives on a diet of doughnuts filled with chicken liver to the rabid-dog POV camera that follows the foxes on their frantic attempt to escape the clutches of farmer Bean (a manic sequence that's up to the best "Wallace & Gromit" escapades). Best of all is the way the animals speak and work in much the manner of humans, but when they sit down for dinner, they tear into their food with savage ferocity.
It's this gap between domestic tranquility and the urge to run free and wild that drives the film thematically, but at the end of the day, it's more of a lark than anything else. As Mr. Fox notes admiringly near the movie's end, "That was pure wild animal craziness." The viewer will surely agree.