Fantastic Mr. Fox
Cast: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Owen WIlson, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Brian Cox, Wes Anderson, Michael Gambon, Anjelica Huston, Helen McCrory, Roman Coppola, Garth Jennings
Director: Wes Anderson
Columbia College Chicago '09
"Well pumpkins, it comes down to that age-old decision: style... or... substance?" -Vida Boheme
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Review By: Thomas Pardee
I was a manic Roald Dahl fan as a kid, which, looking back, was totally weird. Not just because deriving pleasure from reading it at age 8 was weird (and it was), but because Dahl himself is pretty out there. His writing is almost impossibly English: dark, dry, wordy and fond of the grotesque — especially in its portrayal of unpleasant humans. At the same time it was, and remains, some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever read.
It’s tough to imagine this humor translating through not only the cultural lens of the prolific American filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore are virtually in a genre of their own. But somehow, Anderson‘s stop-motion depiction of Dahl‘s classic Fantastic Mr. Fox has proven this not just a possibility, but a lucrative one.
Dahl‘s story is a gloriously simple one, but Anderson‘s bookends to the plot add some welcome complexity. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), tired of his boring life as a poor newspaper columnist, endeavors to pull an elaborate heist on three local farmers, the very Dahlian-dubbed Boggis, Bunce and Bean (each is his own shade of nasty, with Bean being voiced by Michael Gambon). He succeeds, sure… but it isn’t long until the farmers, nursing bruised egos and brandishing rifles and bulldozers, turn their fury toward Mr. Fox and his new tree house.
Where Dahl‘s story is wild and over the top, the film takes on a much smoother, folksier, dare I say more Andersonian tone. The result is a good-natured adaptation that has nuance and heart. Small moments set this film apart — like a scene in a chemistry class with Mr. Fox’s son Ash (voiced by Anderson muse Jason Schwartzman) in which the young fox is jealous of his clearly superior cousin Kristofferson, who’s attracted coveted female attention. The combination of complex stop motion techniques and deadpan, minimalist direction really gel in scenes like these. In fact, it works so well, you almost wonder if Anderson is better suited for animation of this nature than he is for regular live action direction. (But then you remember the brilliance that was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and decide, probably not.)
The characters are remarkably human, and it’s clear the detail-oriented nature of the animation helped add to this personification. The only scenes in which the characters break out of their humanoid roles are the few unsettling ones in which they’re eating. (They flash from civilized to savage and back again in mili-seconds, and it never ceases to be disarming). This helps remind the audience that these are animals, after all, with animalistic tendencies. They need adventure in their lives, and Mr. Fox needs more — he needs to feel special, and the way he chooses to measure his success is in terms of how much he can give into his natural, wild
The DVD extras are meager for Fantastic Mr. Fox, but they help answer one lingering question: how were the tiny reactionary moments that are such hallmarks of Anderson‘s performance-driven films translated in the complex stop motion animation process? The answer, as revealed by the 7-minute featurette The Look of Fantastic Mr. Fox, is that it was as tedious as it sounds. Still Life: Puppet Animation is a geek’s look into the many technical challenges animators face when actually shooting a feature-length stop motion film. The Beginners Guide to Wack-Bat doesn’t really add much to our understanding of this quirky, nonsensical game featured in the film, but it does shed some light on what NOT to include in a DVD extras package; I would have much rather heard about the pot-addled party during which the details of the game were conceptualized than a rewording of the game itself with a sloppy news-reel effect overlay. We could have definitely done without this one.
Still, the rest of the disc makes it worth owning this quirky stop-motion marvel. And if that’s not enough, I offer two more words: Bill Murray.
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Features Grade: C
Overall Grade: B