SPOILER WARNING: As usual, I will be discussing key events and themes from the movie. Do NOT read this if you have not seen the film.
For whatever reason, I haven’t been a big fan of Wes Anderson until his last two films. Oh, they were well-made and acted, to be sure, and he’s impeccable at picking the right music for a scene. But they always left me cold; I wanted to get interested in the characters, but it felt like they and Anderson were keeping me at arm’s length. But both this film and Anderson’s next, Moonrise Kingdom, blew past all my defenses. Especially since Fantastic Mr. Fox is so wonderfully odd, hand-crafted and funny.
Based on the beloved children’s book by that legendary master of black comedy Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about, well, Fox (voiced by George Clooney). He’s a retired chicken thief now working as a newspaper columnist (I love that I can even type that sentence). But he’s starting to feel what I guess equates to a mid-life crisis. He’s growing distant from his “different” son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), he wants to move to a nicer house (or tree, in this case), and he keeps feeling the itch to steal from the nearby humans again. His wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) will have none of it, but he can’t resist, and begins to steal from the farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). Unsurprisingly, this comes back to bite him in the ass, and now he has to fix things in order to ensure the survival of his friends and family. Add a visiting nephew named Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) who makes Ash feel jealous and inadequate, and you’ve got a recipe for prime awkwardness.
The first thing that one must talk about is how the film looks and moves. As technology improves, stop-motion has been able to become smoother and more fluid as time has gone on. Look at Henry Selick’s films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline, or last year’s ParaNorman (which was produced by the same studio as Coraline but had different directors). Fantastic Mr. Fox takes a different, more old-school approach where the characters move with noticeably jerky joint movements, but the film is no less lovely for it. It’s quite beautiful, actually, especially the lovingly hand-crafted environments, special effects and costumes. In fact, the jerkiness only adds to the comedy in a lot of places, such as when Bean tears apart the inside of his trailer in a rage. The score by Alexandre Desplat supplements the action rather than seeming overbearing, and the popular music choices are again perfectly chosen (especially the ending dance to, well, “Let Her Dance”).
Anderson brings along several of his usual suspects in terms of actors, but also brings on some new voices/faces, and they’re all excellent. Clooney has played roles like this before, of course, but he gets to bring new dimensions and neuroses forth in the combination of his voice and the stop-motion puppet. Meryl Streep is of course flawless as Mrs. Fox; has she ever given a bad performance? Schwartzman doesn’t really sound like a teenager at this point anymore, I suppose, but he still gets across all the little quirks and oddities of his character. Bill Murray is basically Bill Murray as a Badger, Fox’s lawyer, and he gets some great turns-of-phrase and outbursts to play with. Former Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky puts in quite a funny, slightly out-of-it performance as Kylie, a possum who keep spacing out at inopportune moments. Anderson is smooth and naturalistic as the humble but talented Kristofferson, the Brits are all wonderfully despicable, and there are fun vocal cameos from the likes of Willem Dafoe as a sinister Rat, Mario Batali as a rabbit chef, and Owen Wilson as the school coach.
What I find most interesting about the film is how it manages to perfectly blend the sensibilities of Anderson and Dahl. From Anderson we have the family issues, odd character beats and music choices; from Dahl there is the wicked dark humor and distrust of modern society, especially in the ludicrous extremes Boggins, Bunce and Bean take to exterminate their animal nemesis. Dahl trusted the intelligence of children in his books, and so does Anderson in his film. He doesn’t gloss over violence (Rat is quite explicitly killed off late in the film, though he gets a little moment of redemption), hurt feelings or the family problems at all. At one point, Felicity even says that while she loves Fox, she shouldn’t have married him. For an American animated film aimed at families, that’s pretty heavy. The Kristofferson/Ash conflict resolves itself in quite a touching way, but before that there’s all the awkward angst of a young man feeling like he is being replaced in his father’s affections. And while everything turns out more or less all right at the end, it’s tough getting there.
I suppose, in the end, what I like most about the film is that despite the fact that it’s violent, harsh and dark at points, the tone is overall warm, inviting and funny. I think making this movie freed Anderson from the limitations of live action, and thus informed the more fairy tale/storybook quality of Moonrise Kingdom, which is similarly sweet and charming. 2009 was a great year for different types of animation (CGI, stop-motion, hand-drawn, and even Flash), and this is easily one of the best outings from it.