To say that Wes Anderson has a very particular, very identifiable film style is like saying that Woody Allen films often feature a neurotic protagonist. No duh. Anderson is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable filmmakers working today, having emerged in the 1990′s alongside fellow indie auteurs Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Alexander Payne. Sadly, Anderson’s shtick has worn thin on the critical community lately, especially when compared to his peers who have each blended their offbeat comedy with melodrama, melancholy and blistering satire to the tune of multiple Academy Award nominations and victories. Perhaps his critics are just upset that Anderson seems intent on avoiding a challenge, having spent the past fifteen years creating visually and thematically identical films. Consider then Fantastic Mr. Fox to be the equivalent of Anderson throwing down the gauntlet to all his detractors.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is the first cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s tale, in which a mischievous fox attempts to steal chickens, ducks and cider from some unwitting (and frankly unprepared) farmers. It was a cool little story; notice that I didn’t call it “sweet” or “charming” as I would normally refer to a book from my childhood. The hero of Fantastic Mr. Fox was no cuddly little critter. He was cheeky. He was mischievous. He was kind of a jerk. It should be noted that these three attributes can also be given to Max, the lead character of another childhood favourite, Where the Wild Things Are (also brought to the screen ingeniously by Jonze).
Therefore, it makes sense that Wes Anderson would bring the story of one of literature’s “coolest” creations to the cinema. He may not have much experience in animated films (with the exception of some stop-motion animation in The Life Aquatic). However, he has forged a career out of “cool” characters; not just in terms of attitude, but also in their iciness. The characters in each of his films, from Bottle Rocket to The Darjeeling Limited, are mostly aloof, indifferent and filled with an air of entitlement (much like a certain Mr. Fox). However, each of them feel a certain obligation towards their family – whether they like it or not. These themes are perfectly interwoven into the cinematic narrative of Fantastic Mr. Fox (the book was adapted for the screen by Anderson and regular collaborator Noah Baumbach).
George Clooney voices Mr. Fox, which makes sense because he is essentially the Danny Ocean of the animal kingdom. His undeniable charisma is turned up to 11 here as he plays a sly and incomparable chicken thief. His wife (Meryl Streep) makes him promise to give up his dangerous profession and settle down with her, especially considering the imminent birth of their first child. He agrees, and for almost a decade he keeps his promise. But the mid-life crisis arrives and suddenly writing a daily column for the local paper doesn’t cut it anymore. His strange pre-teen son (Jason Schwartzman) hasn’t grown up the way Fox had hoped and their new home is proving to be more expensive than anticipated. In an attempt to reclaim some thrills and escape the daily doldrums, he plans “one last heist” (we’ve heard that before). The mark: dangerous farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, whose delectable deposits of chickens, ducks and cider are too delicious to deny.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is oddly hilarious, enthralling and overwhelmingly heartwarming; it might even be the best film of Anderson’s oeuvre. Part of the credit must not only go to the talented likes of Clooney, Streep and Schwartzman, but also Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson, who provide the vocal cords for some of the film’s more memorable supporting characters. Special mention must go to acting amateurs Wallace Wolodarsky and Wes’ brother Eric Chase Anderson. Wolodarsky nearly steals the show as Mr. Fox’s reluctant partner in crime Kylie (an opossum, of course). Eric Chase Anderson meanwhile gives a warm performance as the Fox family’s cousin Kristofferson.
Wes Anderson’s films are accused of feeling distant and cold, exemplified by his flattened mise-en-scene that continually keeps the viewer separated from his detached characters. I’m a big fan of Anderson’s style. However, his visual approach has often seemed like a unique trait without much deeper significance. Here, it highlights the storybook quality of the film. Each intricately orchestrated frame feels like a gloriously animated page of a picture book. Anderson has employed a team of ultra-talented stop-motion artists to achieve this (in painstaking manner no doubt). It’s not nearly as sleek as Henry Selick’s Coraline, but it isn’t supposed to be. The individual hairs on each of the animals and the gorgeous environment displayed in the film seem like the felt patches of a children’s book that are intended to be caressed against your cheek and held close to your chest.
You can pause any moment in an Alfred Hitchcock film and the captured frame will be so beautiful and so delicately composed that it would be worthy of hanging up as a work of art. Anderson achieves the same thing here, although the images conjured in Fantastic Mr. Fox would be better suited to the walls of your child’s bedroom. It is a film sure to be embraced by kids, adults and animals for generations to come.