Not to sound like a lazy freshman trying to coast through Introductory Composition and Rhetoric, but I think we should start this off by remembering that the original and primary definition of “fantastic” is not “excellent” but rather “based on fantasy … conceived by unrestrained fancy.” In that sense, the word could easily and accurately be applied to the works of writer-director Wes Anderson, whose filmography increasingly reads as a personal quest to place very human problems into very unhuman surroundings. With each film, he’s grown more obsessed with exercising a kind of fetishistic control over the style, turning the movies into dioramas writ large. The best example of this was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which dealt awkwardly with an estranged father and son amid an oceanic research vessel searching for an endangered shark. Anderson’s periodic cuts away to the boat on a stage, with the fourth wall gone and the camera sliding between rooms, marked the moment he finally figured out what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. So thinking about all that, it’s appropriate that he’s the one who’s adapted Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox for the big screen. The detail and conception are gorgeous, as if Anderson’s been dreaming of doing this all along, and he and co-writer Noah Baumbach have done an excellent job at transposing very human attitudes and concerns onto a bunch of wild animals just trying to survive in the woods. It’s energetic and kind, and the splendid stop-motion animation doesn’t look or feel like any other film out there. The film is, indeed, conceived by unrestrained fancy, an explosion of style and grace that feels like a storybook come to life, packed with incisive humor and genuine heart.
Anderson’s film takes the book’s story as its core and beautifully expands it into something grander that’s as much about life, family, and the struggle to accept your place in the world as it about animals and farmers. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) are middle-class inhabitants of a valley being slowly taken over by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, a trio of farmers and businessmen intent on industrialization. Mr. Fox is reminiscent of many of Anderson’s quirky heroes: He grapples with a fate he can’t fathom, and he imagines himself destined for greatness even as things crumble around him. He began life as a wilder animal, but in order to provide for his wife and cub, he’s given up stealing food and turned to writing a column for the local paper to make ends meet. (Casting him as a member of the print media is one of the film’s joyfully anachronistic touches meant to recall the 1960s and the period leading up to the book’s publication in 1970; another is the music from the Walk-Sonic transistor radio Mr. Fox occasionally clips to his pants while walking.) The nut of the children’s story is about Mr. Fox’s thieving antics inviting the wrath of the neighboring farmers, but Anderson and Baumbach’s screenplay hinges on Fox’s desire to pull off one last major score, the results of which send the farmers after him and the rest of the valley’s inhabitants. It’s an important and telling piece of the puzzle. Mr. Fox was actually out of the game, but his desire to go back to thieving is what brought down the heat. Anderson’s heroes — even when they’re foxes — are always haunted by their own grandeur.
From the start, the technicality of the sets and characters is amazing. Stop-motion has long felt like the uglier stepsibling to more traditional animation, especially now that Pixar has so dominated the CG-cartoon field. But under the guidance of animation director Mark Gustafson (whose credits include specials from Will Vinton Studios), Fantastic Mr. Fox is a dazzling tribute to a marginalized method of moviemaking that’s glorious in the way it so thoroughly realizes the ins and outs of its own particular universe. The foxes, badgers, weasels, and other characters cavort like springy super-beings; explosions release smoke made of whispy cotton tendrils; everyone’s fur keeps moving even when they’re standing still. The film feels above all else alive, bristling with anticipation at its own existence.
The bulk of the film deals with Fox’s efforts to repel the invading farmers and save his homestead and friends, but it’s his family life that gives the film its emotional weight. Fox’s nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s brother), is staying with the family for a while, which rankles Fox’s son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who dreams of being the natural athlete and charmer that Kristofferson seems to be. Ash is a classic outcast — one of his classmates calls him a “wet sandwich” in an attempt to pinpoint how weird he is — but he’s also endearing. He’s just a kid trying to win the approval of a father wowed by the new kid, and Ash’s journey to accept Kristofferson and reconcile with his dad is the quiet, beating heart at the center of Anderson’s whirling fantasy. The director, actors and puppeteers are able to evoke a staggering amount of emotion from twists of fur and wire, and the moments here of reconciliation, humor, and jubilation are just as hard-earned and pleasant to behold as they are in more traditional fare.
Clooney is pitch-perfect as Mr. Fox, bringing both the swagger necessary for the character’s grandiose schemes and the innocent kind of obtuseness typical of Anderson’s leading men (and, now, animals). But the rest of the cast is wonderful as well, bringing a low-key, droll sense of humor to the proceedings. Everyone is somewhat subdued, even within a certain range of emotions, most notably Schwartzman and Eric Anderson. But Wally Wolodarsky just about steals every scene as Kylie, an opossum and the superintendent of Fox’s tree-trunk house. He’s sweet and scared, the reluctant sidekick for Fox’s adventures. They’re also lucky to have some of Anderson’s funniest dialogue in a while. The jokes are wry and quick, playing off the characters’ foibles, but just as likely to veer into the absurd. Most importantly, they’re self-deprecating without being self-loathing. At one point, Mr. Fox ponders aloud, “Who am I? Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know?” His fumblings are meant to be funny and slightly self-involved, but Anderson’s genuinely letting the question be posed. Fox is philosophical without being a dolt. After working together on the unpleasant and self-loathing Life Aquatic, it’s refreshing to see Anderson and Baumbach able to churn out a script that isn’t choked with Baumbach’s penchant for self-flagellation.
It’s also interesting that Anderson has made what is ostensibly a children’s movie that’s bound to have almost no appeal to actual children. Yes, there’s a sense of happiness that comes through in the animation, but, well, this isn’t Toy Story. The style, tone, humor, characters, and execution are aimed squarely at Generation Y and above despite being wrapped in what looks like a kids’ film. It’s tempting to say that it should belong with Where the Wild Things Are to a new subgenre of films: Pseudo-Children’s Movies Meant To Be Enjoyed Solely by 25- to 40-Year-Olds Reflecting on Their Own Youths, perhaps. And there’s definitely something to that. But Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is more than a one-off or a genre exercise, both when considered on its own merits and as part of his larger body of work. It’s the latest and possibly ultimate realization of his goal to spin an earnest and offbeat father-son tale in a curious and hyper-specific world. He’s made a charming and original film, rooted in unrestrained fancy but possessed of a very real set of human souls. It’s a great fantasy that is, yes, fantastic in every sense.