Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
"Basically, there's three grabbers, three taggers, five twig-runners, and the player at whack-bat. The center tagger lights the pine cone, chucks it over the basket, and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig-runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, at the end you count up however many scoredowns it adds up to and divide that by nine."
So says frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson as Coach Skip in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson and his co-writer for Fox, director Noah Baumbach, have also taken a whack-bat to children's animation with their game-changing, instant-classic film.
The film opens with shots of fields laid out from above, and it's clear that's what we're seeing, even though the various sections are made of shag carpeting, corduroy, and other clothy textured materials. Then a quote from the book appears on-screen. Then we see a shot of a library copy of Roald Dahl's short children's novel Fantastic Mr. Fox, the version illustrated by Donald Chaffin, which is opened and fades to a scene very like the cover illustration, in which our hero, Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney), is waiting for his best girl Felicity (voiced by Meryl Streep) under a tree, listening to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" on his Walksonic radio.
They decide to take the "scenic route" home, stopping along the way at a squab farm to gather some dinner. This caper is set to the tune of The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains," and sets the tone for a beautiful, picaresque time at the movies. The joys of the lovingly handmade stop-motion animation (mixed with some digital wizardry which enhances and focuses it) become apparent immediately, as Mr. Fox and Felicity approach their goal with wild-animal agility.
Anderson and Baumbach accomplish something very special with their script, as well, including nearly every line, dot and dash of detail from the novel while expanding some characters and the ending to turn the film into a full-blown, eccentrically perfect Wes Anderson film worth the title, and still a classic Roald Dahl filmed adventure. Specifically, they beef up the parts of Felicity Fox and "the little foxes," as they are referred to in the book, as well as some animal neighbors, to create a slightly larger story with more family drama of the droll and honest variety Anderson favors, without taking away or departing in spirit from Dahl's vision. They also add a rabid, nasty beagle one feels would have been right at home in the book.
The conflict between the Foxes' son, Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman), and their nephew, Kristofferson (voiced by Wes Anderson's brother Eric), who comes to stay with the Foxes during his father's illness, is a brand-new masterpiece which fits snugly into the main tale as Dahl wrote it. It adds layers of humor and sympathy for all the characters, as well as providing the catalyst for a slightly more complicated ending. Schwartzman and Anderson are just right as their vocal performances invest the puppet characters with real personalities, they could be extra Royal Tenenbaums brothers. There's a scene in which Kristofferson gives Ash a karate lesson which very much echoes the opening of Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket.
Mr. Fox is not the complete hero of this film that he is in the book. His sillier or more grandiose ideas are subjected to much more criticism from the other characters, especially his wife, than they are in the book, as befits a Wes Anderson production. Fox becomes much more an imperfect and put-upon patriarch familiar from Anderson's films, one who has to balance his instincts and ambitions with the responsibility of fatherhood and the foibles of his family.
Little details add up over the film to create a whole anthropomorphized animal world which interacts amusingly with the world of people. Seventies-and childhood-reminiscent images and textures give the film a wondrous feel, with characters' eyes replaced with rotary-telephone looking asterisks or neat spirals when they are dazed, manhole covers which are pencil-sharpener faceplates, shag carpeting standing in for whatever texture is capable of being represented with shag carpeting, curse words replaced with the word "cuss" (even for graffiti), and a French-resistance or more generic "fight the power" motif which brings Rushmore to mind. The dialogue absolutely crackles and has a depth not present in the book.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great movie, a great kids' movie, a great Wes Anderson movie, a great Roald Dahl adaptation, a great story exceptionally well told. It is beautiful, funny, action-packed, lovingly detailed and expertly built in every way. It's one of the best movies of the year. And the music!
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