I had no interest in Fantastic Mr. Fox when I first saw the previews. The animation looked sloppy, the story lackluster, and the characters two-dimensional. Having never read Roald Dahl’s classic book, I had no nostalgia fueling a desire for the film. To me, it just looked like a waste of time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic) has utilized the artistry of stop-motion animation to create his most sophisticated and beautiful film to date. While there is never a sense of reality to the proceedings, I still found myself believing in this cast of animals. There is a subtlety to the performances (and there is no question that these “dolls” are giving performances) that rivals the live-action work of the voice cast.
As the “fantastic” Mr. Fox, George Clooney gives an inspired performance. Much has been made about his recent work in this year’s Up In the Air, but I found this voice work just as worthy of accolade, if not more so. The character has the cockiness you typically find in a Clooney performance, but it is matched by a frailty I’m not used to getting from him.
As the movie begins, we realize that Mr. Fox is a chicken thief. Mrs. Fox (an amazing as always performance by Meryl Street) asks him to give up his life of crime due to her pregnancy. Flash forward several “fox years,” and Mr. Fox is now a reporter, having put his old life behind him. Their son Ash (Anderson staple Jason Schwartzman) is jealous of his visiting cousin Kristofferson, which sets off the expected family drama. This drama just happens to be in a family of foxes.
Eventually, Mr. Fox decides to pull off the ultimate heist of three several successful farmers named Bean, Boggis and Bunce. Putting together a team of various animals, the film escalates into an animated Ocean’s 11, just with foxes and badgers instead of people. Without giving too much away, the situation evolves as expected and the story quickly turns into a rescue operation.
It’s a very simple story, especially considering the fact that Dahl’s book is only Act Two of the film. Anderson created a beginning and an ending that are not part of the original story. And yet, everything flows together perfectly, thematically and story-wise. However, the film isn’t all about the story. This is a film that thrives on style.
I already mentioned how subtle the performances are, but what I haven’t touched on is the humor of the film. This movie is hilarious. Not only is the dialogue fantastically funny, but there is a very unusual style of visual play at work. The way the sequences are framed, the transitions and just the style of movement lend themselves to some of the best sight gags I’ve seen in a long time.
The world that populates these fantastic characters and sequences is beautiful in it’s own right. There are over 120 sets, and they all look like they exist perfectly in this world that has been created. Every shot is gorgeous, and it is obvious that the people behind the scenes are artists. You don’t often get artistry, even in animation, and it’s a real treat to see a product that is not created by committee, but rather one where you can feel the passion behind-the-scenes.
This artistry becomes even more apparent when watching the Behind-The-Scenes features on the newly released Blu-Ray. There is a feature called “Making Mr. Fox Fantastic,” that runs a little under 45 minutes. This is broken up into many sections, including “The Look of Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “From Scipt to Screen,” “The Puppet Makers,” etc. It’s a thoroughly in-depth accounting of the entire process, beginning when Anderson was writing the script from Roald Dahl’s house. This was a passion project, and it shows.
I loved everything about this movie. It has all the quirkiness you’d expect from a Wes Anderson film, and it turns out that animation is the perfect outlet for that style. As mentioned, Clooney, Streep, and Schwartzman do great work, but there are also fantastic performances from Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray and Michael Gambon. It’s a very adult film that would completely appeal to children. At the same time, it’s a great children’s film that any adult would love. This balance is very tricky to pull off (usually reserved for Pixar movies), but Anderson got it exactly right. His perfect understanding of the material helped make this one of last year’s best.