That Wes Anderson could move from the realm of R-rated live-action comedy to that of PG-rated stop-motion animated comedy without missing a beat or making a single compromise or concession is a marvel to behold—and so is Fantastic Mr. Fox. What could have easily been—to adopt the language of the film itself—something of a “cluster cuss” winds up instead both prime Anderson and perhaps the most striking animated movie of the year. What Anderson has done is to take Roald Dahl’s children’s book and present it in terms that are purely Andersonian—witty, quirky, individual—and the result is just possibly the most pure fun you’ll have at a movie all year.
From the moment Anderson presents the viewer with a copy of the Dahl book that’s labeled, “Now a major motion picture from American Empirical,” you get the strange feeling that he’s been working toward something like this for some considerable time—especially if you pause to remember that The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is presented as if it were a children’s book. But where that film might be said to represent a child’s interpretation of an adult story, Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adult interpretation of a children’s story—done in such a way that it’s perfectly suitable for both.
In many ways, it’s almost the definition of a Wes Anderson film—right down to literalizing the common complaint from his detractors that he moves his characters around like figures in a dollhouse. He flirted with this in Tenenbaums, with its toy stages (probably the origin of the criticism), and he touched on it again in the little displays in Jason Schwartzman’s room in the Hotel Chevalier segment of The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Well, now he’s actually made a film that consists of him moving dolls around in very elaborate dollhouses—ones that, in fact, give Anderson even greater freedom to indulge his penchant for breakaway or shaved sets, which allow for complex camera movements and stagings that are theatrical without being stagey.
It helps immensely that Dahl’s story is a good fit for Anderson’s particular worldview. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is something of a rascal, who just can’t keep his promise to Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep) to be a solid, sober citizen, because it’s just his nature to be a sly fox who likes his poultry fresh—and stolen. Mr. Fox also can’t resist bedeviling the trio of humans—Boggis, Bunce and especially Bean (voiced by Michael Gambon)—who run things in the part of the world where the action takes place. Since they’re a very disagreeable lot, it’s hard to fault Mr. Fox for this—even if Mr. Fox won’t be the only one to suffer for his thieving antics.
Being that the Fox family is in an Anderson film, it naturally follows that they are at least somewhat dysfunctional. As is common, there’s a son, Ash (voiced by Jason Schwarzman), who has issues with the fact that his father doesn’t appreciate—or even much notice—him, and this situation is exacerbated by the arrival of a relative, Kristofferson (voiced by Anderson’s brother, Eric), who is everything Mr. Fox could want in a son. Mrs. Fox is very much in the mold of mothers and wives that Anjelica Huston played in Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Darjeeling. In fact, Meryl Streep plays Mrs. Fox in a similar manner, but with a frailty that’s never more than hinted at in Huston’s characters.
For all that can—and should—be said about the film’s stunning use of old-fashioned stop-motion animation, I honestly feel that the highest compliment I can pay the movie in this regard is that I don’t immediately think of it as an animated film. I merely think of it as a film. Even its flights of fantasy and its anthropomorphic characters (who are charmingly prone to reverting to wild animals at the slightest provocation) are absolutely real in my mind. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.
Truly, there’s not a false note or a false characterization in Fantastic Mr. Fox. The voice casting could not be improved upon and never once does it feel like the actors were cast just for their name value, but because they really are the absolute best choices. It all comes together in a glorious outburst of great humor and tremendous vitality, making it not only one of the best films of the year, but the best early Christmas present you could hope for. Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor.