Mark Reviews Movies

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: The voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson

MPAA Rating: PG (for action, smoking and slang humor)

Running Time: 1:27

Release Date: 11/13/09 (limited); 11/25/09 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

The more you think about it, the more you realize just how perfect a fit Wes Anderson is to make a film like Fantastic Mr. Fox. His films have a storybook sensibility and structure, and his sense of the family unit, even as dysfunctional as they usually are in his view, is more keen and honest than almost anyone else exploring that common but difficult cinematic terrain.

Here, then, is perhaps the only next logical step in continuing that style and motif, an animated family film that has surprisingly well-developed anthropomorphic characters, mature themes (in terms of sensibility, not content), a minimalist but vibrant look, and a sense of ironic detachment that never detracts from and only punctuates the fun.

And, boy, is Fantastic Mr. Fox fun. This is a joyous time for all the above reasons and the jubilant energy Anderson brings to it. It'd be easy to call it an experiment on his part, except that it's far too fully realized to cram it into that category.

The story, taken and expanded from a book by Roald Dahl, concerns the mischievous and egocentric Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney), who gave up a life of thievery 10 fox-years ago after finding out Mrs. Fox (voice of Meryl Streep) was pregnant and promising to be a good husband and father from then on.

He has been away from it for too long. He and his family still live in a hole in the ground, and even though Mrs. Fox tries to explain that foxes are supposed to live in holes, he wants more out of life. After all, he's about to turn seven, and his dad died at seven and a half. He thinks a new home in a tree would be nice, although the one available on the market (The realtor is a weasel, by the by) is certainly no evergreen or pine.

His son Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) has entered teenage rebellion, growls and spits in derision a lot at his parents' parenting. To make matters worse, Ash's cousin Kristofferson (voice of Eric Anderson, brother of Wes, an interesting casting choice considering the development of the sibling-like rivalry that develops) is coming to stay for a while. Kristofferson is good at sports, meditates, starts dating Ash's lab partner, and everything else that impresses those around him, while Ash has to settle for being different. Kristofferson also knows karate, which always seals the deal on a budding inferiority complex.

Meanwhile, Mr. Fox has a plan. With the help of his possum buddy Kylie (voice of Wally Wolodarsky), who has the hilarious tic of his glass eyes going glass-eyed randomly in the middle of conversation, he will rob the three meanest farmers around (The kids even have a song about their nastiness). Mrs. Fox, though, becomes immediately suspicious of the increase of chickens in their pantry, and the farmers set off to rid themselves of the pest in any way possible.

Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach quickly create this world, set up these characters, establish a tone, and settle on the themes, and they let the abundant humor grow from there. The film is simply loaded with sparkling imagination and wit in even the smallest details.

A lot of the jokes revolve around playing with the conventions expected of a family film. The characters cuss, but in phrases like, "What the cuss," and "Holy cuss," and other such variations. It's set up in an incredibly funny fight between Mr. Fox and his badger lawyer, appropriately named Badger (voice of Bill Murray), and continues throughout.

The family dynamics are more authentic than we'd expect, with Mrs. Fox becoming so fed up with Mr. Fox's antics that she eventually flat-out states, "I shouldn't have married you." The bickering between Ash and Kristofferson is mixed with some genuine heart, like in a moment when Kristofferson, upset by his father's illness and forced to sleep underneath Ash's model train set, begins to cry. As much as Ash can't stand his cousin's unintentional one-upmanship, he comes down from his bunk bed, and the two watch the model train run for a bit, forgetting their problems and tension for a simple pleasure.

The main theme is the group coming to grips with what makes them unique. Mrs. Fox tells her husband that the story here is predictable: Either he changes his ways, or they'll all die. Fox doesn't and argues he can't change his nature—he's a wild animal, too, after all—but he and the rest of the animals who become caught up in the results of his behavior come together to celebrate their differences and use them to survive. Fox has his sly planning, the mole has night vision, Mrs. Fox is great at painting stormy landscapes (which get stormier as things get worse) and a map for their strategy, and the badger, as we all learned in biology class, is a demolitions expert.

Anderson's shot compositions are of two-dimensional picture-frame quality, keeping in tune with the storybook aesthetic that comes from the source material, and it's deceptively simple. Some sequences have fluid background motion going on as well, like a chase scene involving a Chekhov's rabid dog, introduced in the first act and improvised into the plan when the chips seem really down.

The character models, called "puppets" in the closing credits, have a homemade look and feel that's emphasized by the tiny fact that the hair on their faces moves randomly during their stop-motion animated close-ups. They are also very expressive, although nostalgia for the animation style might aid in making them seem so.

The voice acting (Anderson recorded the performances on location in different environments, and you can hear and appreciate it) is also spot-on, especially Clooney playing his usual cool self and Schwartzman really nailing teenage angst and longing for acceptance. Michael Gambon is the meanest of the mean farmers, who interrupts a poor singer-songwriter's attempt at a theme song and has a destructive temper tantrum, and Willem Dafoe shows up as a villainous rat who finds redemption. Of course that redemption is undermined immediately after it's discovered.

Moments like these keep us on our toes throughout Fantastic Mr. Fox. The film has a renegade attitude but is also clearly respectful of the purpose of children's stories—to entertain, to teach, to imagine—and it's a joy to experience.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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