Monday, December 7, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1970 book of the same name. While not my favorite Roald Dahl book (that honor belongs to The BFG), it features all of Dahl's trademarks in full bloom. While most of Dahl's work can certainly be classified as "children's books", they have an edge and a grime that brings to mind the similarly morbid Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Dahl paints vivid characters and settings with his words and does not shy away from showing the grotesque and the beautiful in equal measure. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is no exception. Wes Anderson's adaptation expounds on the original story in the same way that Spike Jonze was able to stretch Where The Wild Things Are; cleverly and tastefully.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between Mr. Fox and the farmers (Boggis, Bunce and Bean). Mr. Fox steals chickens, ducks and cider from the farmers, and the farmers resolve to find and destroy him, sparing no expense in the process. Mayhem and adventure ensue. Wes Anderson (the director of cult-classics Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and most recently, The Darjeeling Limited) tells the story of a reformed Mr. Fox, resigned to a menial newspaper column after a close call in a heist 2 years ago (12 fox years). He struggles to keep his animal instincts in check, and ultimately finds himself sneaking out under the cover of darkness to indulge himself. Needless to say, the farmers notice.

Plot points aside, this film is unabashedly Wes Anderson, from the soundtrack that uses The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, to the obligatory cross-section tracking shots and the impeccable attention to detail. For better or worse, it's all here. Personally, I love it, but I can see how people can dismiss it as pretentious. What cannot be dismissed is the incredible stop-motion animation work on display here. Stop-motion animation is not a new medium by any means, but never before has it been imagined so vividly. From the fur of the animals, to the elaborate sets, everything is painstakingly perfect. I don't know why I am surprised, it's Wes Anderson. But still, it's quite a sight to behold.

While this is all well and good, art direction cannot push a plot forward and flesh out characters, and this is something that some of Anderson's recent films have suffered from. Not enough heart. Anderson smartly introduces universal existential themes to rationalize the behavior of Mr. Fox in the same way that Brad Bird did so effectively in The Incredibles in 2004. Both feature male characters leading an unfulfilled life, who ultimately put their entire family at risk by entertaining their fantasies. Both Bird and Anderson deal with these weighty themes beautifully, striking a balance between the dark morality of Tim Burton and the sickly-sweet lessons of Disney. The new medium also allows Anderson to infuse the film with some talents I didn't even know he had. Namely, his knack for physical comedy. The characters run, sneak around and get washed away in hilarious fashion. He also does some impressive things with facial expressions and mannerisms that are a challenge to incorporate into a stop-motion film. The voice work here is also perfect, featuring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Willem Dafoe and Bill Murray. Also, I can't imagine a more petulant Ash than the one voiced by Jason Schwartzman.

Wes Anderson's imagination and affection for his work has never been in question but he has struggled to inspire the same sense of wonder and sentiment in his audience. In Fantastic Mr. Fox he finally succeeds, not because the characters are especially more likable or because he has toned down his style, but because the sides and the stakes are clear. Escape or die. There is no sense of double-crossing and adult pettiness that left such a bitter taste in your mouth during The Life Aquatic. That's not to say the characters are perfect (far from it), but their motivations are transparent, and there's a certain warmth in that.

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