Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Sleek, slick, candy-colored computer animation is all well and good, but my tastes run kind of old school when it comes to animated films, I guess. Maybe it was all those Rankin & Bass Christmas specials I watched as a kid (and still watch), but I love stop motion animation, with its jerky, felty, tactile, lived-in look. Give me Wallace and Gromit, with their feet of clay, or Mr. Fox with his fantastic, coarse pelt and glass eyes over the shiny, rubbery perfection of pixels any day. The critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox look as if they came out of some toybox full of treasures like pinecones and bits of tattered cloth and very special rocks. They look pliable and playable.

Fantastic Mr. Fox wouldn't be the first film by Wes Anderson to look and feel like it was set in a dollhouse -- both The Royal Tenenbaums, with its vast, colorful, shabby brownstone, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, with its fantastic cutaway ship, call to mind miniature worlds that could be occupied by puppets. Anderson's people have something of the puppet in them too -- they move through the world tentatively and with strings attached, and they speak in hesitant pauses, the spaces between their words sometimes saying as much as the words themselves. Fantastic Mr. Fox takes all those tendencies and quirks in Anderson's films and makes them just a tiny bit less lifelike, which makes them so much more... real.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on Roald Dahl's book, and as adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, it features a rascally, irresponsible, morally ambiguous hero in Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney). Fox, being a fox, was a successful chicken thief until Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), expecting their first pup, made him give up his life of crime. He settled into a quiet life as a newspaper journalist, but always longed for one final heist. He cooks up a scheme with his possum pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to steal from the three biggest, meanest farmers in the area: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Bean (Michael Gambon) lives on hard cider and is "the scariest man currently living." The other two aren't any nicer. The farmers don't take kindly to fox's pilfering, setting in motion an escalating war that threatens every animal in the valley. If one were so inclined, one could read into this fable an environmental message, or a message about the futility and mutually assured destruction of war. Or, one could just see a fox trying, as always, to outwit a farmer who is armed with a gun, a backhoe and dynamite. Anyway, Fox, being a fox, isn't especially repentant about starting a war.

The animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox is terrific, full of wit and imagination, with a scruffy, cartoonish ingenuity and handmade beauty. The puppets don't look anything like real animals, and yet the characters are so richly conceived, and the voice work is so nuanced and full of life that the movie does what any good animated movie (regardless of the method) should do: it imperceptibly engages the imagination and makes you forget that you're looking at simulacra. The critters in Fantastic Mr. Fox look and act like they just *are* -- as if, even when you're not watching them, they're going about their lives, doing foxy and badgery and rabbity things. I also love the movie backgrounds and sets, which look just like storybook illustrations and scale models -- which is basically what they are. The movie fully embraces artifice, although no more so than Anderson's live action films.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is as fully realized as any of Anderson's films, and like his other works, it revels in the odd and quirky, in the idiosyncratic beauty of misfits, in the dissatisfaction and loneliness of the brilliant. It also shares Anderson's preoccupations with irresponsible, irrascible father figures and difficult, eccentric families. To that end, the main narrative about the escalating war between Fox and the farmers sometimes moves to the back burner (to simmer a while) as the movie burrows into Fox's friendships and family dynamics. Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) has an intense rivalry with his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who is more athletic and less quirky, and is possibly favored by Fox (who, lest there be any doubt, is not exactly a model father). Fox and the missus have a less than perfect union, and indeed, all of Fox's relationships are tested by his rash, devil-may-care ways. His lawyer and friend Badger (Bill Murray) is especially vexed by Fox's recklessness.

Fantastic Mr. Fox might vex parents too, as the movie is likely to raise a lot of questions for any youngsters who see it. I'd hazard a guess that young children aren't typically part of Anderson's fanbase (although teens surely like *Rushmore*), and despite its provenance, Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't especially more kid-friendly than Anderson's other films. Some kids will like it, if they catch on to the way the puppets embody and enact psychologically complex thoughts and feelings (just the way kids do with their own toys). Other kids won't get it at all (and might be frightened by the violent death of one character), and won't find the movie funny or charming or, for that matter, very interesting. All of which is to say that kids will react to Fantastic Mr. Fox just like anybody else will. Some will love it, some won't. I found it charming, warm, engaging, funny, and challenging, and all around fantastic.