A Useful Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009, dir. Wes Anderson

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With his latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson seems to have stumbled upon something truly revelatory in his career: The man was born to make movies using stop-motion animation. Anderson is a man obsessed with minutiae, the tiny details in a film that might seem trifling or inconsequential when looked at in a vacuum but actually help to elevate a movie and make the story that it intends to tell that much more palatable. It is an obsession that has come up in his oeuvre previously, from Rushmore to 2007’s Darjeeling Limited. In those live-action films, that particular proclivity was something extra; in Fox, it practically feels necessary. Those tiny nuggets of information about the world that Fox (George Clooney) and his family and friends inhabit are invaluable to bringing that world to life, from an “unaccompanied minor” tag to whack bat (the film’s baseball/cricket equivalent) trophies.

The film, in part, rides on that slavish attention to detail. Anderson, some of you may have read, required his crew to employ a retro approach to creating the world of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Real animal fur was used. Everything you see in the film was captured in-shot, meaning no computers were used to manipulate the film. (Yes, even stop-motion films use computer technology as a tool.) I think sometimes people forget that film is a collaborative effort, and Fox may be one of those rare films that has the power to remind people that it takes more than just a director sitting in his chair*, yelling at actors, to get a movie made. As much as Anderson deserves immense praise for his meticulous, precise vision of what his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book should look like, the fine people working at Three Mills Studios deserve as much praise for bringing that vision to life.  (If not more; Anderson gallivanted around Paris while the crew toiled for a year in the studio. It’s his movie, but ultimately the fruit of their labor.)

Fantastic Mr. Fox’s world is beautifully detailed and realized; the retro style of the animation makes the film feel dated in a way that only enhances its palatability. A slick, glossier update of the almost 4 decades old story would have robbed the resultant film of the pleasure of its aesthetic graces. Instead, the film’s low-tech sensibilities lend it a natural charm unhindered by modern technology. The departure from using computers as a tool– even for minor aid– is incredibly refreshing, and should show fans of animation what artists and craftsfolk can do without relying on modern technology.

How have I gotten 400 words and change in without actually talking about the story itself? All of the artistry on display would be worth nothing if the film’s narrative turned out to be lifeless. Fantastic Mr. Fox, as you might guess, is about Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a once-upon-a-time thief of livestock who gives up his ways to raise a family with Felicity (Meryl Streep). When Fox goes through a mid-life crisis, he purloins a bounty of loot from three local farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean; when they take their revenge, he bands together his fellow countryside critters to fight back against the wicked agriculturalists. And of course dispersed throughout are the many themes common to Anderson’s cinema, from children with daddy issues to the portrayal of a deteriorating family.

Whimsy is a traditional component of Anderson’s films, and it works as often as it does not in his live-action films, where those elements can come off as forced. Put more simply, quirks are imposed on the people and the world of the film for the sake of adding quirkiness, and nothing more. However, if the human actors are stripped away, lending only their voices, and if the live-action world and sets are traded in for stop-motion animation, all such peculiarities add to the fantasy of the cinematic world instead of acting as a burden. If anything that alone should prove that stop-motion is the ideal medium for Anderson: In such an animated fantasy world, he is much more free to employ his imagination without risking saturating his film with unbearable levels of “twee”.

But I’m getting away from the story again. Maybe what’s more impressive to me than anything else about Fox is how Anderson has finally chosen a medium for telling his stories that works, totally and completely, in tandem with his director’s propensities. That says much  more about me and my relationship with Anderson’s cinema than it does about the actual film. Aside from being the film that best showcases Anderson’s point of view as a director, it is also, put simply, the best story he  has told since 2001’s Royal Tenenbaums. Fantastic Mr. Fox follows in the footsteps of Pixar’s recent films, such as Up and Wall-E, in that it works as an animated movie for both adults and children. There’s a delightful and rampant silliness running through the entire film, but what else should be said about a movie that features Michael Gambon reprimanding one of his character’s subordinates for bad song-writing and replaces all foul language with “cuss”? None of these elements are underwritten to appeal only to children, or overwritten to please adults; they simply exist and we choose whether to accept them or not. I said this earlier but it’s a matter of the elements that make up the parts of the sum feeling, if you’ll excuse the word, natural and not forced. We might have a hard time accepting, for example, whack-bat, but this is so much a normal part of the world the characters inhabit that acceptance should come easily.

The voice acting here is uniformly excellent, and in an ensemble cast such as this it’s rare that each actor is memorable no matter how big or small their role. But each voice manages to make an impression, from Owen Wilson’s whack bat coach to Willem Dafoe’s turncoat rat, who works security for the three farmers. Clooney leads the pack as the eponymous canid, oozing charisma as he appears to channel Danny Ocean (you could almost consider Fox to be a stop-motion animated play on Ocean’s 11), though he is very nearly upstaged by Jason Schwartzman, playing his “different” son, Ash, who has a major chip on his shoulder regarding his attention seeking father. Streep provides a quiet and nevertheless powerful backbone to the film as Fox’s wife and voice of reason, giving her depth and wisdom as well as immense reserves of strength. Gambon’s villainous Bean, exuding malice, also nearly manages to steal the show with some incredible one-liners, though he never at any point loses sight of his character’s cruelty. The supporting cast does an impressive job rounding out the rest of the vocal talent, from Bill Murray’s suit-wearing badger to Dafoe’s switchblade-wielding rat; it’s hard to pick a real favorite out of the bunch because each performance so perfectly captures its intent.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is, for Anderson, a real triumph. Certainly it is one of the best films of the year, but more importantly it is probably Anderson’s best film period. Here, I think Anderson has really found the perfect technique for telling the stories that he loves to tell, and I can only hope that he is given the chance to try his hand at stop-motion again in the future. Put more simply this is an incredible fantasy animation for adults and children alike, and the kind of world that I would be happy to revisit again and again.

*Or schmoozing in Paris.

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One thought on “A Useful Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009, dir. Wes Anderson

  1. Pingback: Better Late Than Never: My Top 10 of 2009 « Andrew At The Cinema

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