No Easy Lessons

In an unusually strong year for animated films, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' still stands out as one of the year's most artful and entertaining entries.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is the strangest children’s film we’ve gotten in a while. Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach take the melancholy and general oddness of indie cinema and apply it to one of Roald Dahl’s minor works, wrapping it all up in a decidedly retro package that combines Jarvis Cocker, the Welsh countryside, the music of the Beach Boys and Rankin-Bass style stop motion animation. And somehow, it works. The love for the stories of Dahl really makes its way through, resulting in a film that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time. In an unusually strong year for animated films, Fantastic Mr. Fox still stands out as one of the year’s most artful and entertaining entries.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) used to make his living stealing livestock from farmers, but he had to give it up when his wife (Meryl Streep) gets pregnant. Twelve fox-years later, he’s fully caught up with normal life, writing a newspaper column, raising his very odd son (Jason Schwartzman), and moving his family aboveground to a tree home. But Mr. Fox’s new home is in the vicinity of three big farms, and the restless wild animal in him can’t resist falling back into old ways. Unfortunately for him, these farmers won’t put up with his antics, and they soon devise a plan to eliminate Mr. Fox that quickly wreaks havoc on the lives of all the animals in the area. It’s up to Mr. Fox to figure out a way to fix things.

The movie uses Dahl’s story as a springboard, the elements of the book mostly relegated to the middle third. Anderson and Baumbach stretch the story out on both ends, turning it into a really odd tale of family and acceptance and responsibility. The narrative is barely there, standing to one side as the movie lets loose a series of wonderful absurdities and plays it all with a straight face. The movie moves frantically, shifting quickly between subtle social satire and out-and-out visual gaggery, before launching into rapid-fire comedic exchanges and musical numbers. It’s all a bit insane, but also quite delightful, foregoing most of the kids’ movie clichés and delivering something a little looser, maybe more ambiguous.

Wes Anderson’s distinctive aesthetic is just perfect for stop motion animation. His signature symmetrical frames and camera movements have also felt like little cinematic dioramas. Stop motion just takes things a little further, by shooting actual dioramas. The style is rather coarse, certainly nothing as smooth or as sophisticated as recent animated films. But therein lies its charm. Older folks might be reminded of the Rankin-Bass features of yore. Younger folks ought to still appreciate the warmth that the visuals bring, with the beautiful autumnal palette, the realistic fur on the models, and the organic feel of the movement. The animators appear to have had plenty of leeway with how things moved, and they really delivered.

It is always a risk to cast such recognizable voices for an animated film, the persona of the actors often overshadowing the characters. But when the persona fits, subject and shadow can make for some wonderful convergence. Mr. Fox, as imagined by Anderson and Baumbach, could only have been voiced by George Clooney, with the same charming, goofy swagger that makes one a great leader and a transcendent screwup. Jason Schwartzman pretty much reprises his role in Rushmore as the fox boy Ash, and it is yet again a perfect fit. Anderson also finds the perfect roles for Michael Gambon, Jarvis Cocker, Bill Murray and Mario Batali, among others, giving them characters that really play well to their personalities.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn’t provide any of the easy moral lessons that one might expect from a film intended for children. That may be because it isn’t really all that intended for children. Much like Dahl, Anderson refuses to talk down to his audience, placing his passion and love for the characters and the craft at the fore, working with a joyful exuberance that may leave some details unhinged, but makes up for it with pure energy. As far as Andersons strayed from Dahl’s words, he really captures a measure of the man’s essence, creating a work that kids will enjoy, and perhaps grow to love as they get older.

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