Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Fox Really Is Fantastic

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Freely based off Roald Dahl's 1970 children's book, director Wes Anderson's ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Darjeeling Limited,") "Fantasic Mr. Fox" is pure joy, an animated fable that is a rough-and-tumble and tactile visual wonderment to behold. Anderson used stop-motion animation and the reported pain-staking labor it took to make this movie certainly paid off in the casual, nonchalant piece of art it really is. The thing with this director is that maybe he was meant to direct animated films all along because this way his world feels more believable and therefore becomes more endearing and also allows his wits and sharp humor to shine through the material. When he was once creating real-life twisted into the unreal, he has now transformed the talking animal world into something surprisingly real.

Rarely before has such texture exploded in a film with fur that shifts, moves, and sways, and smoke and foam made from cotton balls. This is also a world that breathes in shades of orange, brown, and colors of autumn whether it's from the earthy underground where the foxes live or from the color of the foxes' fur itself. The film is shot rather two-dimensionally with the camera rarely tracking in or out, and this helps to emphasize the storybook quality. The plot is ruled primarily by a riddle that is repeated through the movie even, in some cases, through the voice of singing children: Boggis and Bunce and Bean, one fat, one short, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) was once a mischievous crook who stole chickens with his wife, Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep). After a close call, Mr. Fox promised his wife never again. He retreats into a job of journalism writing a column but quickly gets the urge to return to thievery against the trio of evil farmers all the while doing so behind his wife's back.

There is also Mr. Fox's clumsy son, Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), who wants to be considered naturally talented and athletic like his father. Unfortunately for Ash, his cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Eric Anderson) swoops in to do everything better, and he steals any thunder Ash might've had. He becomes the family's golden child, or fox, rather, and the story of this quarrel becomes of immense importance to the greater picture of all the animals. Badger (voiced by Bill Murray) gets Mr. and Mrs. Fox a nicer place to live above ground in a massive tree. Mr. Fox's undercover side work gets blown, however, and all of a sudden an all-out war is declared, and the animals are all digging underground to save their tails, sometimes even literally.

In the same spirit of Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," this is a PG-rated movie that isn't so much for children. Like the book upon which that film is based, there are some dark undertones lurking here along with some violence and a large usage of tongue-in-cheek language using the word "cuss." But sometimes children's movies that push the boundaries are all the better for kids to endure, especially this one with a hero that has his own set of flaws. Mr. Fox certainly isn't perfect with his boastful and sometimes selfish personality. He is, however, grounded and realistic, and George Clooney's snarky attitude fits the part. They're all wild animals at heart, and the intelligent script by Anderson and Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") don't ignore this fact. And in a moment where Mr. Fox meets his phobia, a wolf, the film strikes a high point of poignancy and profundity that comes as a welcome surprise.

Wes Anderson may be self-consciously aware of his hipness, especially with a quirky original song and fascinating score by Alexandre Desplat, but it is well-deserved and becomes even admirable with the resounding and seemingly effortless success this animated feature is. In the end, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is, astonishingly enough, even better than Pixar's "Up," which is saying a lot. It definitely gets my vote for Best Animated Feature of the year.

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