If Wes Anderson just wanted to keep on making stop motion features, I’d be okay with that. His films are already sort of like stop motion in that they take place in these very twee, almost dollhouse-like worlds. Everything is art designed to perfection, and the actors play everything with a chilled out energy that recalls the quite non-hyper stop motion puppet. I don’t think a stop motion The Royal Tenenbaums would look all that different from the live action one.
Which is a way of saying that The Fantastic Mr. Fox is simply a Wes Anderson movie. Yeah, the leads are animated woodland creatures, but they’re the animated woodland creatures who live in Anderson’s own off-kilter world. Their environments, their concerns, their motivations, their conflicts – all of it feels just like a Wes Anderson movie, except with a touch more action and adventure. I’ve never read the Roald Dahl book upon which the movie is based, and honestly this doesn’t feel like an adaptation – it just feels like what a Wes Anderson movie aimed at children would be.
George Clooney is the titular Mr. Fox. Twelve fox years ago he promised his pregnant wife (Meryl Streep) that he would get out of the very dangerous chicken-stealing business. But now, with his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) a misfit in high school our hero is having a midlife crisis. When a move out of their traditional foxhole into a more expensive tree doesn’t help, Fox sets his sights on one last heist, the heist to end all heists – he’ll steal from each of the three evil farmers who rule the local valley. While the initial heists go off perfectly, the farmers soon seek revenge and every animal in the valley ends up paying for Fox’s folly.
Anderson creates a truly wonderful little world, inhabited with a diverse cast of animals toiling in ordinary human jobs (I love that the real estate agent is a weasel. And that he wears a pink polo shirt). It’s flat out fable stuff, and it works beautifully with the painstakingly hand-crafted stop motion animation. Yeah, you can see the animator’s fingers in the changing textures of the animal’s fur, but that’s totally within the Anderson aesthetic. And the rumors that Anderson was a total dick to his animators? If true, it was completely worth it, as the animation is delightful and charming and expressive and wonderful.
Everything in the film is wonderful; the world of stop motion animation allows Anderson to indulge in his most whimsical whims without coming off as too precious or annoying. He can have all of the characters replace curse words with the simple ‘cuss’ and it’s charming. He can take the melancholy and make it sweet, something he seemed less able to do with The Darjeeling Limited. And he can follow little diversions and make them completely engaging.
At a brisk 80 or so minutes, The Fantastic Mr. Fox breezes by, by Anderson manages to get some of his usual themes in there. There are daddy issues here, although they’re gentler than in his last every single other film he’s ever made. He has his characters coming together as a big, wacky family. It’s all there, just in a format you can take your kids to see.
The voice talent is particularly wonderful. Clooney is of course great as the rascal hero, but my favorite performances were Schwartzman as the very weird kid and Eric Chase Anderson, the director’s brother, who plays the meditating, handsome and very cool cousin Kristofferson. But everybody is great – Bill Murray in his few scenes as Badger, Mr. Fox’s lawyer; Michael Gambon as one of the evil farmers; Willem Dafoe as the amazing knife-wielding psycho Cajun rat; even Owen Wilson as a coach and Adrien Brody with one line as a field mouse!
What really made The Fantastic Mr. Fox work for me in a way that no other recent Wes Anderson film has is that the artifice is part of the technique. I felt so distanced from Darjeeling Limited and even The Life Aquatic, but with stop motion – especially such warm, tactile stop motion – the distance is bridged by the fact that you’re not watching something that’s ‘real.’ It’s real in an emotional sense – while Mr. Fox probably won’t stir many tears, it will warm many hearts – but it’s so patently unreal in the physical sense that you’re able to just enter the world.
I never thought we’d see two arthouse kiddie movies in one year, let alone in the space of a few weeks. While Where the Wild Things Are is a movie that might appeal more to parents than to their kids, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie that will win over every age group in the family. Sweet without being treacly, funny without being stupid and filled with delightful flourishes and beautiful moments of artistry, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is the best Anderson film since The Royal Tenenbaums.
9 out of 10