Fantastic Mr. Fox
Rated PG/87 min.
Roald Dahl’s children’s novel becomes a stop-motion animation film in the hands of director Wes Anderson, and the result is both hilarious and beautiful. The title character is a rascal of a thief (voiced by George Clooney) who enjoys tormenting and stealing from three nearby farmers, much to the disappointment of his wife (Meryl Streep) and his neglected son (a never funnier Jason Schwartzman). When the farmers strike back, “Foxy” enlists the help of his woodland pals and begins a war that costs him his home and his tail.
The characters are adorable but this isn’t mindlessly cute or one of those cinematic babysitters that small children love while their parents snooze. The characters are so engaging, I stopped noticing the stop-motion technique and the celebrities doing the vocal work and got completely wrapped up in the story, which is always clever and heartfelt.
After Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, which felt like a two-hour in-joke, he returns to form with his funniest movie so far. I loved Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, but agree with many who feel Anderson’s work can be too pretentious and self consciously “artsy.” That isn’t the case here. The animation technique, which calls to mind Wallace and Gromit and the Saul Bass holiday specials, is perfectly expressive and vivid enough to bring this charmingly goofy tale to life. With the deadpan line readings, perfectly centered framing and unusual song cues, Anderson’s directorial traits are in evidence; fans will be glad to see he hasn’t sold out and made a crass mainstream work. Yet those fed up with his previous films and the rest who could care less about Anderson will find a perfect balance between his personal touches and the brilliance of the animation.
The score, with its emphasis on The Beach Boys, is terrific and so are Clooney, Streep, Schwartzman, Maui resident Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, all of whom bring their characters to life and give real performances instead of “appearances.” Many animated films showcase movie stars bringing their personalities to the roles they voice instead of embodying real characters. Here you’ll recognize the actors, but they service their roles instead of turning them into smug caricatures.
Not everything works, as some intriguing characters remain in the background (good luck catching Adrien Brody as a field mouse), but the story never gets heavy-handed, even as it suggests a mild Animal Farm-like metaphor of the poor versus the fascist ruling class. The film is sophisticated enough for adults but has enough madcap slapstick and silly humor for small children. With apologies to die-hard fans of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, my favorite Dahl adaptation has always been The Witches, an innovative and thrilling underrated gem. Now I have two favorites.