Monday, December 14, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Anderson

I've been a fan of Wes Anderson since he debuted with Bottle Rocket in 1996. His talent is singular and unique, and his attention to quirky detail is unparalleled. Time and again, from Rushmore to The Royal Tenenbaums, from The Life Aquatic to The Darjeeling Limited, his work is continually touched with a hint of oddball magic. Some of his films are better than others, but they all range from nearly-great to totally great, finding unexpectedly touching humanity in the midst of a rigidly quirky framework.

All that said, I approached Anderson's latest, Fantastic Mr. Fox, with some trepidation. Sure, the stop-motion animation technique is a fun throwback, especially for a filmmaker like Anderson. But how, I wondered, could the film be anything other than a silly, animated lark of a picture? The film would easily be zany, weird, and fun...but can a goofy animated movie truly be a great film?


Fantastic Mr. Fox proved all of my fearful suspicions incorrect. It is a truly wonderful film experience, and another in the extending line of dark, mature, challenging family films. Up continued Pixar's string of beautiful animated films that demand more from their young viewers, Where the Wild Things Are zeroed in on the unique emotional turbulence of childhood and invited kid audiences to identify, and now Fantastic Mr. Fox brings the dark world of classic storybooks to modern movie audiences. Children have long been the most disrespected of all film audiences, always talked down to and presented not much other than lame pratfalls and mild gross-out humor. But kids are not mindless creatures; they can think and feel just like everyone else. One can only hope that these beautifully challenging kid films become a mainstay on each studio's yearly roster.

This film is based on Roald Dahl's classic children's book, and Dahl has been a well-tapped source for interesting family films for several years now. The story here: crafty Mr. Fox (voiced by a pitch-perfect George Clooney) has a history as a wily, irresponsible thief, but has settled into a rut as a family man. Tired of his hum-drum life, he sets out to find a new home for his family by burrowing beneath the farms and factories of three infamously dangerous businessmen and swiping some valuable loot (turkeys, chickens, cider) in the process. The story is lofty fun in itself, but Anderson infuses his own unique charm into the film, somehow finding a way to make a movie that is completely, unmistakably his own, yet also make it entertaining and relatable to children. The trick is to not cheapen the material; Anderson still crafts characters who deal with hidden pain and insecurity, mask their feelings through surface quirks, and often hurt one another along their road to personal solace. Sometimes the characters are a little too biting both for kids and adults, a likely result of Anderson tapping Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) as his co-writer. Original writing partner Owen Wilson might have been a better fit for this story, but Anderson's dry charm overcomes any of the film's very minor setbacks.

Never has a film format been tailor-made for any one filmmaker quite like stop-motion animation fits Wes Anderson. Even his live-action films sometimes operate like stop-motion animation. Sure, the movements are fluid, but the environment and tone befit the mode of traditionally oddball stop-motion films of old. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the filmmaker allows a few of his jokes to skew slightly sillier than normal, but stays true to his typically dry, awkward, skewed view of reality, and the stop-motion format fits the material seamlessly.

As with any Wes Anderson picture, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a matter of taste. Anderson's style is not for everyone, and will likely turn off several moviegoers. But that would have been the case no matter what, whether the film was animated or live-action, whether it was rated PG or R. For this critic, I loved every second of the film, which represents a Wes Anderson movie that I could share with my kids, who loved it every bit as much as I did. Fantastic Mr. Fox is wonderful fun, and represents Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums.

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