Short Version: Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasantly surprising film that is odd, witty, and probably more fun for adults than kids.
I am not a Wes Anderson fan. Rushmore didn’t make me swoon; The Royal Tenenbaums made me groan; The Life Aquatic was no “masterpiece” far as I could tell and I didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited. In fact, everything Anderson has done after Bottle Rocket has ultimately fallen on my cinematic bad side. Hearing his name brought up in classrooms and discussed as if he is the Shakespeare of cinema has only compounded that antagonism. If we were to play the word association game and you said “Wes Anderson” my immediate response would likely be “Pretentious and overrated.”
I went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox because, frankly, somebody on the site needed to review it. I wasn’t expecting much. What I found, however, was a film that is odd, witty, clever, unique – basically all those words Wes Andersonites usually attribute to their beloved director’s work. And while I may not be one of the converted just yet,I’m starting to come around just a bit.
The film loosely (and with some winking irony) adapts the classic children’s novel The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. The story of the novel was simple: Mr. Fox lives in a fox hole and every night he steals fowls and cider from three ruthless and wealthy farmers in order to feed his fox family. One day, the farmers get fed up and decide to lay siege to Mr. Fox’s hole, forcing Fox and family to literally go underground. There, the Fox family meets other animals driven from their homes because of the farmers’ swath of destruction and with a bit of crafty planning by Mr. Fox, the animals band together to outwit the cruel farmers.
Anderson takes that simple story and stamps it up and down with his trademark off-brand wit and humor. In this modern take, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a thrill-seeking master thief who enjoyed life by doing what he does best (stealing livestock from farmers) until his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), eventually got pregnant with their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Once a baby started cooking in the oven, Mrs. Fox demanded that Mr. Fox give up the risky life and settle for a steady, danger-free, day job as a newspaper columnist.
Of course, Mr. Fox eventually has a mid-life (in fox years) crisis, and feels compelled to resume his nightly thrill-seeking by robbing the heavily-guarded farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean (Michael Gambon), three rich and cruel local farmers/industrialists. With some help from his Opossum handyman/friend, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox soon finds himself back in top thieving form – that is, until the farmers catch on to his schemes and launch a terrible siege against the Fox clan. The Foxes abscond underground, partner with the other animals and try to outwit the bad guys.
Indian Paintbrush is the stop-motion animation company behind the visual effects of Fantastic Mr. Fox and they’ve done a wonderful job on that front. The stop-motion animals look great and Anderson practically revels in having the film acknowledge its stop-motion format. There are weird times where characters are stopped with spiral-eyed expressions to indicate confusion (Kylie), or other times where the frame-to-frame jumps are exaggerated into humorously choppy sequences of movement. The animation style creates a unique and wonderful (and often gorgeous) world with a distinct play-time atmosphere that only adds to the fun.
My favorite bit of self-referencing humor, however, had to be the ironic winks at the classic storytelling technique of having animal characters act human. Like every Wes Anderson film, the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox are smart and sophisticated society types (speak that way, act that way) – but they’re also animals, and Anderson never lets us forget it. There are great moments like watching the animal characters sit down at fancy banquet tables only to ravage their food like feral, well, animals a second later.
In one particularly funny scene, Mr. Fox (Clooney) meets with his lawyer, Badger (Fall ’09 cameo king Bill Murray), to discuss a property investment. When the gentlemanly discussion turns sour, things devolve into two wild animals circling one another, growling, hissing and swiping with their claws, only to regain their refined composure a second later and resume the discussion. It’s funny stuff.
The voice acting is pretty well done. Clooney is great as Mr. Fox, lending his trademark witty charm to a famously witty and charming character. Streep is a bit undervalued, but Schwartzman is pretty hilarious as the Fox family’s black sheep (no pun) weirdo Emo son, Ash. There’s a whole subplot in the film dealing with Ash’s teen angst over being a runt and high school outcast, jealous of his athletic yoga-loving cousin, Kristofferson (Anderson’s brother, Eric, popping up yet again). That subplot had no real relevance to the actual main story and it tacked on some unnecessary runtime to the film, but somehow it was still entertaining to watch (and really quirky weird) at the same time. Ash is a weird dude, and Schwartzman (the go-to actor for quirky weird dudes) really does help the character stand out. Micheal Gambon similarly shines as the evil (and perpetually drunk) Franklin Bean.
Fantastic Mr. Fox does lag a bit about halfway in, indulging just a bit too much in Anderson’s quirky delights (hence the 3.5 star rating), but it picks up steam again (eventually) and finishes off nicely. There are some great themes, some really great reoccurring lines (“Put this bandit mask on”) and some memorable characters to root for. There are also some nice surprise cameos that will make you smile (Owen Wilson as the coach of a ridiculously complicated sport, or Willem Dafoe as a villainous rat, for example).
In short: there are plenty of things in Fantastic Mr. Fox that are accessible and enjoyable for the average moviegoer. It’s still weird, still quirky and totally off-beat from what you think it will be – still totally Wes Anderson – but the fun is definitely there to be had.