REVIEW: Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 87 minutes | Release Date: November 25th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Wes Anderson
Writer(s): Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach / Roald Dahl (novel)

“Never look a beagle in the eye”

When I heard that Wes Anderson was going to direct a stop-motion adaptation of a Roald Dahl children’s story I was shocked, perplexed, and very worried. Not only had he stumbled—not fallen—with The Life Aquatic, but he was now also putting his talent behind a multi-year project. He thankfully fit in The Darjeeling Limited, bringing back a bit more of the magic his first three films contained, and because of it I frankly forgot Fantastic Mr. Fox was even on the table. After viewing, however, I’ve learned to never doubt the creative prowess of an auteur like him. Whether live action or animation, this film proves that when you have Wes Anderson’s name on the director’s chair, you will be getting a Wes Anderson film. As such, you may be a tad worried about taking younger children, (having the word ‘cuss’ used where an R-rated film would use any number of swear words doesn’t necessarily make a film completely family friendly). As far as the story is concerned, have no fears at all. This is a feel-good tale teaching us how it is ok to be different and how a community can band together to fix any problem. It’s heartwarming, funny, and gorgeous to behold. You cannot ask for much more.

With all the grumbling of late about dissension back stage, how Anderson directed via computer link and rarely if ever went to the London-based studio, I have just one thing to say … it was worth it. I understand how the art director wanted to smooth things over and work the animation to be fluid and attractive, the technology is there after all. But Anderson is a visionary and he knew that keeping the nuance of stop-motion intact, by allowing the hitches and awkward movements to make the final cut, he would be doing something unique to the times. Why does everything need to look pristine and polished? There is definitely something to be said about letting the artistry itself show through; the aesthetic becomes a character all on its own, even lending itself to the trademark Anderson close-ups and static edits. Knowing also that he mimed the movements for every character just adds more charm to an already hands-on feel. I can only imagine the herky-jerky karate slides of Rat being portrayed by this unassuming man, not to mention the aggressive eating process these critters have—they are wild animals don’t forget. I can see the crew laughing hard and making youtube videos of those for blackmailing purposes, especially if the animosity to their leader was true.

I’ll admit to knowing nothing about the source material, and therefore having no clue if the adaptation was faithful or even similar. What I do know is that the story onscreen is exciting, enthralling, and highly enjoyable. Like most parables, it includes a distinct protagonist and antagonist, both made obvious at the start. We see the children’s song created about the villains, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, even before we know who they are, (that comes later and is a major reason Mr. Fox decides to buy some volatile real estate), and watch as our hero does his last theft, soon to be wife at his side. The Foxs are a loving pair, realizing that having a family means making concessions, especially since their true nature is all about stealing and living on the edge. It’s this adventurous trait that makes them excellent Whack Bat players, (what a vintage Anderson setup watching Owen Wilson’s Coach Skip explain the convoluted rules to the game), but not so great at surviving to old age. You can take the fox out of the danger, but not the danger out of the fox, well at least not this wily, fluent in French and Latin, master planner.

The main plot is of course Mr. Fox versus the three mean businessmen taking over land and making a ton of money in doing so. What greater challenge than stealing from the most powerful people they know? Hubris gets involved immensely, both on Fox’s part in needing to start up a profession he left behind 12 fox years earlier, but also the farmers for thinking their weaponry and human intelligence could outsmart nature’s beasts. Along the way Mr. Fox learns what truly matters; Ash, his son, finds out that being different is a good thing, (if in fact he is different—shake your heads near your temples—he doesn’t think so); Badger and the rest of the woodland creatures find that working as one is much better than fighting; and even Rat has the potential to find redemption in life. As with all of Anderson’s work, the cast is a dream ensemble, working together like a well-oiled hard apple cider machine. The creatures move like humans, even when digging holes at breakneck speed, lending them enough civility and feel of the actors—besides dinner time—to let the voices sink in.

It is a real pleasure looking up the people that voiced some characters, like Fox’s nephew Kristofferson and his right hand man Kylie, finding that they are Anderson regulars and not anyone famous in and of themselves. This guy has crafted a community around himself, utilizing the same people often, including, I assume, the same crew, and making every shoot into a gathering of friends having fun. Willem Dafoe as Rat and Michael Gambon as Bean are over-the-top and excellent at portraying the picture book villainy you’d imagine from a work such as this and George Clooney excels as the titular fox, sticking to his usual suave and confident self. The real standout, though, is Jason Schwartzman as Ash. Here is the fox version of his own Max Fischer—a societal outcast, beating by his own drum. His standoffish demeanor and constant spitting at situations that displease him are a hoot; no one does misunderstood existentialism masked as social disorder quite like him. And it is that nuance in performance that makes this film enjoyable for the adult population, adding a layer of intelligence to the otherwise simple tale of morals, friendship, and family.

[1] Mr. Fox and friends. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
[2] L-R: Mr. Fox’s nephew Kristopherson (Eric Anderson) and Fox’s son Ash (Jason Schwartzman)
[3] A scene from The 20th Century Fox’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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