Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Review: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Imagine if a group of ironic hipster movie-makers decided to do their own version of a beloved children's book, and in stop-motion animation to boot. It retained the basic story, but layered in a lot of dry humor that appealed to adults -- basically, a kiddie tale tailored for grown-ups.
You can stop imagining, because "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is that movie.
Director/co-writer Wes Anderson brings along many of the actors and all of the sensibilities of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Rushmore" to this adaptation of Roald Dahl's book about a fox who can't give up his chicken-hunting ways.
Dahl has been a virtual one-man fount for children's flicks: "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach," "Matilda" and more. Meanwhile, Anderson's movies are marked by their detached quality and wry characters, punctuated by quirky/folksy music.
The combination may not seem obvious, but they mesh together deliciously. "Fox" is one of the funniest movies of the year, though in a deadpan sort of way.
Mr. Fox is voiced by George Clooney, doing his debonair rogue thing. After nearly being captured by a farmer while stealing chickens, his wife (Meryl Streep) makes him promise to give up his life of danger.
Flash forward a few years, and they're a happily domesticated couple with a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman, whose vocal performance is top-notch). Ash is undersized and resentful, a state that only grows when his athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fox decides that his life as a newspaper columnist is too dull, so he enlists his opossum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to take aim at the mega-farms of Boggus, Bunce and Bean -- the three meanest farmers around. He draws up elaborate master plans to make off with their chickens, ducks and apple cider.
Unfortunately, the farmers hatch their revenge by lying in ambush outside Fox's tree home, shooting his tail off in the process. They're led by the lean Mr. Bean, scarily voiced by Michael Gambon. They even bring in big earth-movers to uproot the whole hill, with throws Badger (Bill Murray) and a lot of the other members of the animal community out of their homes, too.
One of the most delightful things about the movie is how the animals outwardly behave liked civilized humans -- Mr. Fox wears a suit, Mrs. Fox is a watercolorist, Badger is a lawyer, etc. But Mr. Fox believes they're really wild animals inside, and have wandered too far from their feral instincts.
Still, it's fun to watch Fox and Bean square off as equal adversaries, rather than hunter/prey -- they even exchange threatening letters. Fox also has an old nemesis, Rat (Willem Dafoe), who wields a switchblade and has been hired by Bean.
I really enjoyed Whack Bat, the game the animal children play at school, which is like a Rube Goldberg version of cricket.
Oh, and it's witty how instead of swearing, the critters just substitute the word "cuss" wherever the naughty one would be: "What the cuss?!?"
The stop-motion animation is amazing, hitting that sweet spot between reality and stylized embellishments.
The title of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" comes from Fox's neurotic need to be the best at whatever he does so others to like him. Based on his movie -- which should give "Up" a run for the Academy Award for best animated film -- he has no need for worry.
3.5 stars out of four