Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox
By Matthew Huntley
November 26, 2009
I'm hoping this will become a common practice in Hollywood - to adapt "children's tales" into more sophisticated features. Last month, Spike Jonze gave us the wonderful and complicated Where the Wild Things Are, and now Wes Anderson takes his first stab at animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox, which, like the latter, is based on a children's literary source with deeper-than-expected themes. Ultimately, Mr. Fox plays more as an irreverent comedy than a family drama, but even so, kids and adults will find they can like it for similar and different reasons.
Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, the film tells the story of Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) and his various misadventures after he decides to steal chickens, geese and cider from the three farmers near his house. He tells his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), "I'm sick of being poor," and enlists the help of his friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) to help him carry out his missions. Of course, he doesn't tell Mrs. Fox (she thinks he's just some newspaper columnist) and his ambitions blind him to the quirky developments of his awkward son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who wants so bad to be an athlete like his dad and cousin.
After a few successful jobs, the three farmers - Boggis, Bunce and Mean - grow wary of Fox's methods and attempt to blast him out of his tree house with shotguns and bulldozers, forcing Fox and the surrounding creatures to escape underground. Everyone grows dependent on Fox, now tail-less, to save them and restore order to the animal community, who apparently have a whole civilization outside of the human race, complete with their own schools, economy, and factories for things like clothes and appliances, although this dichotomy is never fully explained.
First of all, I loved the look of this movie. For stop-motion animation, it's vibrant and original, with a design that fully distinguishes its world and characters. The atmosphere is warm and autumnal, with deep oranges, yellows, browns and reds, and the characters, especially in the close-ups, are given striking detail. You can see it in their eyes, fur and noses, especially for Fox himself, who always has a devious smirk across his face (kind of the like the real George Clooney). There's just something mischievous about a fox wearing a short-sleeved shirt and tie who stands on his hind legs with no shoes on.
Anderson also gives the film a certain level of creepiness, but in a good way, as when Kylies stares blankly at his friends with hypnotized eyes; or the way Fox and his realtor friend, Badger (Bill Murray), suddenly break their cordiality and go into fighting mode, growling and snarling at each other.
George Clooney leads a cast that is surprisingly appropriate for the material. Anderson seems to have broken the trend of Hollywood studios casting big name actors in animated features just because they're big names. I didn't consistently picture George Clooney as Mr. Fox, but rather the character took on a personality of his own. Still, Clooney is good; he has a deep, masculine voice that can be completely stern and serious one minute and then frivolous the next. Many of the other principals are Anderson regulars, but they're well cast here, probably because they know the director so well, so it's easier for them to know exactly what he wants and what tone works best for the story.
There are some deeper themes in the movie - economic determinism; the family unit; an insecure son trying to live up to his parents' expectations; teenage romance; and spousal loyalty. I wish it had spent more time examining these ideas and less on action, but it's still a great experience. Kids will be caught up in the slapstick, the chase scenes, the attractive sets and colors, and the high energy, while adults will appreciate all these things plus the wit, offbeat humor, retro musical selections (typical of Anderson films) and heartfelt emotion.
As far as entertainment goes, I wouldn't place Fantastic Mr. Fox as high on the scale as Up or 9, but it certainly has its own set of unique qualities, which will probably make it more re-watchable in the long run. This is another sophisticated family film that knows it doesn't have to dumb itself down for a laugh or reaction from its audience. Let's hope Hollywood keeps them coming.