THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009, directed by Wes Anderson, 87 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
One hates to agree with such braggadocios bluster but yes, that Mr. Fox is quite fantastic. Director Wes Anderson (known for creating painstakingly mounted neurotic whimsy like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited) takes an unexpected artistic left turn into perhaps his most satisfying film to date. One thing even Anderson’s critics concede is that he has a knack for quaintly-detailed set design, so setting him loose in the hand-crafted world of old-fashioned figure animation is truly a match made in Heaven.
Years ago I was friendly with a neighbor in San Francisco who had just finished work on Henry Selicks’ animated classic A Nightmare Before Christmas. The crew of animation geniuses he had worked with were in the process of deciding whether to continue on to animate with Selick’s James & The Giant Peach or head on over to the new Pixar Studios, where things were just starting to buzz. Although he sensed big things were ahead for Pixar, he followed Selick to James And the Giant Peach. I remember him saying, “It’s what I love. I want to touch things, I don’t want to sit at a desk and work on a computer all day.” Is that part of the hard-to-define affection one feels in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, emotions summoned by craftsmen creating adorable little dolls that trigger long-buried urges to play with them as a child would? For all the whizzy, three-dimensional possibilities of Pixar-era digital animation, seeing real light strike actual meticulously-crafted sets and figures will always have a unique and deep charm that it alone possesses.
Recalling those Rankin/Bass animated holiday specials of the ’60s and ’70s, The Fantastic Mr. Fox has such charm in spades. As voiced by George Clooney, Mr. Fox is another of Anderson’s huckster dads, full of unpredictable schemes yet a little less than “there” when his son, the unathletic little Kylie, needs his support. Year before, Mr. Fox promised Mrs. Fox (voiced by Merle Streep) that he would stop robbing chicken farms when they narrowly escaped death together. Today, Mr. Fox has some misplaced ambitions, he wants to live in a ritzy hollow tree rather than a burrow and his quiet life as a little-read newspaper columnist has him thirsting for the adrenaline rush that only chicken stealing can bring.
In past films Anderson’s childish, self-involved characters could be frustrating as they moped around his immaculately dressed rooms yet this sort of navel-gazing magically transforms itself when transposed to sweet little woodland creatures. And thankfully Roald Dahl’s original novel (adapted by Anderson with The Squid and the Whale‘s Noah Baumbach) gives them enough to do as they tunnel, fight and argue through their battles against the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Some of the film’s funniest moments are when the kvetching ends and the characters briefly behave like the animals they are; spitting, screeching and clawing their way through life. This makes Mrs. Fox’s frustrations hit their peak; why is Mr. Fox bringing such tumult into their lives? “I’m an animal,” Mr. Fox replies apologetically. Perhaps the most perceptive insight any of Anderson’s likable-but-flawed protagonists have voiced about their long-nagging foibles.