Monday, April 26, 2010

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Roald Dahl and Wes retrospect, it's hard to believe it took this long for those two names to be connected.  Dahl, the author of so many delightful, dark, and subversive children's books, seems to have delighted in writing legitimate literature for the young and the old.  In his books, adults were often evil, and the world is full of evil, so it always seemed fantastic when things went right.  Wes Anderson is perhaps the youngest genius director working in Hollywood right now.  His films don't always work (I'm looking at you, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but they are always worth watching.  As the writer and director of his movies, Anderson pays an amazing amount of attention to detail in all his films, so much so that re-watching his movies can often be a revelatory experience.  Anderson doesn't like telling safe or typical stories, so him basing a script on a Dahl book is a natural fit.

The first thing you will notice about this movie is the animation.  Anderson wanted to capture the look and feel of the original King Kong, so stop-motion animation was used.  However, unlike the claymation-style animation from Gumby or the original Clash of the Titans, this animation looks absolutely painstaking.  The hairs on each animal move.  Not all at the same time, or even in the same direction.  They move naturally, which is extremely difficult to achieve through artificial means.  The characters are far more expressive than you would think possible with this technology.  The animation style changes, from the ultra-detailed work of the close shots to fast and loose two-dimensional shots used to pass time quickly and show off the cartooniness of the story.  Nowadays, Pixar studios have the animation market cornered with their terrific computer animated films.  The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a welcome reminder that animation comes in many shapes and forms, and can be just as amazing as the best that technology has to offer --- or even better.

That's just the animation, though.  What about the story?  This is the tale of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a former chicken thief turned family man.  Mr. Fox has sworn off the risky life of chicken thievery to please his wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), and provide for his son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  The movie conveniently skips over the twelve years where Mr. Fox kept to the straight and narrow and focuses on when he eventually starts stealing again.  There are three mean farmers near the Fox household.  Fox plunders them systematically until they decide to fight back.  This movie doesn't pull its punches with the mean humans; they have might and machines, and are willing to use them.  Fox's home is torn apart and the entire neighborhood is ruined, making Fox and his entire community homeless.  That doesn't mean that Fox stops fighting, of course.

Wes Anderson adds quite a bit to Dahl's original story, partly to make it feature-length and partly to fit into his unique cinematic vision.  The most notable change is the number of children, from four in the book to one in the movie.  This sets up Fox's somewhat odd son, Ash, for a rivalry with his cousin, the athletic Kristofferson; Mr. Fox seems underwhelmed by Ash, while openly applauding Kristofferson.  Then again, it wouldn't be a Wes Anderson movie without a strained father/son relationship, would it?

The voice acting here is fine, overall, but could be better.  Clooney is excellent as Mr. Fox.  Willem Dafoe is very entertaining as Fox's animal nemesis, the rat.  Bill Murray does a good job with Mr. Badger; not good enough to cancel out Garfield, but still pretty good.  Overall, though, it probably would have been better with voice actors.  As it is, the cast is a blend of Anderson's friends, coworkers, and actors that he likes.  That means that Adrien Brody, Brian Cox, Owen Wilson, director Garth Jennings, musician Jarvis Cocker, and Wes Anderson himself all make small contributions to the voice cast.  Anderson earns loyalty from his actors unlike any other director today; that is why so many of the same actors work with him, picture after picture, even if their part is minute.  That works wonders in an ensemble movie.  This is animated, though, and that affection does not always show through.  While the voice acting could have been better, it certainly could have been much, much worse (I'm thinking of Shark Tale as an example).  The movie circles around Clooney's character, so that makes a lot of the shortcomings inconsequential; it's called The Fantastic Mr. Fox, not An Animal Ensemble featuring Mr. Fox, after all.

From a visual standpoint, this movie is superb.  From a directorial standpoint, this movie is pretty awesome.  But the story...well, it is ambitious, but doesn't quite hit a home run.  Anderson's script calls attention to the anthropomorphic aspects of the characters, pointing out some of their odd behaviors, all while reemphasizing the fact that these animals are, in fact, animals.  It's not quite metafilm, but it's close.  The movie likes to step back and point out some of the oddities of animals acting like people, and that quality of self-awareness, while often funny, detracts from the story . It sometimes felt like Mr. Fox was giving me the old wink-wink-nudge-nudge, letting me know that animals don't really act like this.  This isn't overt stuff, like Jimmy Fallon mugging the camera, but I noticed it.  Anderson also takes the time to show the consequences of Mr. Fox's actions; Fox's selfishness (or wildness, I suppose) threatens the lives of his friends and family in the short- and long-term, makes his son feel inadequate, and might ruin his marriage.  This is theoretically fine, but a little heavy-handed in practice.  Do I need a realistic marital argument in a children's film about foxes?  No, but I admit that it was written well.  The fact that it was written, though, just feels like a case of wrong time, wrong place.

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