Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight, PG)

film_mr-fox_sm.gifWhile not too tied up in its source material, Fantastic Mr. Fox maintains the feel of whimsy that Dahl was so known for.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stop-motion animation is known to be a very time-consuming process. So what is to be made of the fact that it only took Wes Anderson, the director behind Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, a mere two years between his last film, The Darjeeling Limited, and his new film, an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book Fantastic Mr. Fox? Given its short production time and Anderson’s relative inexperience in the field, one would think that the overall quality of the film would suffer. It doesn’t.

Using stop-motion animation seems to have revitalized Anderson, as Fantastic Mr. Fox is easily both the best film he’s made since Tenenbaums and one of the best films of the year. But much like Tim Burton always getting credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas when it was really Henry Selick who did most of the heavy lifting with the animation and directing of the film, the unspoken hero of Fantastic Mr. Fox is its animation director, Mark Gustafson. In pre-production on the film, Anderson was all lined up to work with Selick, who did some work on the sea creatures in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which work I was not really impressed with, the sea creatures or the film), but the studio he was working with, Revolution, wound up folding, which led to Selick leaving the project to helm the subpar Coraline and Gustafson, an old employee of Will Vinton’s (he of Claymation fame), stepping in. Given my lack of interest in most or all of Selick’s work and the bang-up job Gustafson did here, what might have seemed like a setback to Anderson at the time became maybe the film’s biggest asset: Gustafson’s work seems like the perfect animated equivalent to what Anderson has been doing in live action for years.

While not too tied up in its source material, Fantastic Mr. Fox maintains the feel of whimsy that Dahl was so known for, and which, come to think of it, Anderson is known for as well. (Note Said whimsy is notably absent from the other stop-motion adaptation of Dahl’s work, Selick’s 1996 film James & the Giant Peach.) It concerns one Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney, at his suave best) who was a professional stealer of chickens until his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), expresses concerns over the danger inherent in his job. Upon the birth of their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. Fox gives up the thieving life to become a newspaper columnist, but finds the work unfulfilling. When his athletic and smart nephew Kristofferson (Wes’ brother Eric Anderson, otherwise known as the guy who does those cool drawings for the cover of the Criterion Collection releases of Wes’ films) comes to visit, Mr. Fox uses the opportunity for one last big score: ripping off his new and much-feared neighbors, Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon), one by one.

As is the norm for the best Wes Anderson movies, there is a wide and fun range of supporting characters, including Bill Murray’s Badger, who is also Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Mr. Fox’s best friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), and Willem Dafoe as a rat who defends Bean’s property. But really, the fun is in the playfulness of speech, playfulness of sets, playfulness of actions. I was disappointed to varying degrees with both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, and am glad to have back who was once one of my favorite modern filmmakers. Here’s hoping he can parlay this revitalization through at least a couple more films. | Pete Timmermann

 

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