Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson's animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great movie. It is also an anomaly amongst other films of recent years.

Anderson's films have a questionable charm to them. We see characters we want to like, but then all these little negative nuances pop up, and the characters become more and more flawed. In saying that, Mr. Fox may very well be Anderson's most charming movie since Rushmore in 1998.

Although this is Anderson's first adapted screenplay, the characters still maintain traits that make this a familiar Anderson territory. For example, the dialog is mostly expository, and characters are portrayed as being brutally honest, and willing to point out things that nobody else needs to hear. And when a character is in need of sympathy, that same character offers some hostile anecdotes.

Mr. Fox (or "Foxy"), the primary character, is the only one who makes himself out to be "fantastic." Immediately, there is a cunningness to the character that the audience can appreciate, but in several scenes, we are ultimately reminded that he is very selfish, and even admits to having feelings of narcissism. George Clooney's performance seems to enhance the leading-man image that Foxy has of himself.

Every other character in the movie lives in their own world, until theirs' falls victim to Foxy's world. Roald Dahl's original story doesn't begin until about a third into the movie. Anderson might have done this in order to set up each character and their motivations.

There is something of a war objective going on. The second half of the movie involves a war between animals living in refuge and humans interested in petty revenge and carnage. It feels like a Holocaust of sorts (and I mean that very lightly). Foxy is targeted for behaving like a wild animal, and the other animals have to suffer for it, even though they all behave like good all around (human) citizens. The three farmers ("Boggis", "Bunce" and "Bean") are the oppressors. Bean acts as the dictator, and the others coming off like passive-aggressive Nazis.

I have mixed feelings about the voice acting. I was concerned about George Clooney playing the lead at firsy, but now I feel that his vocal performance is the strongest. His voice is the most identifiable, and suits the character of Foxy very nicely. The rest of the actors were alright, but not all felt right. Jason Schwartzman, Wallace Wolodarsky, and Eric Chase Anderson all sounded too similar to one another, and Bill Murray sounded too much like Bill Murray. Meryl Streep did a nice acting job, but it wasn't used enough, and Owen Wilson was promoted for a performance that only lasts about 3 minutes.

Visually, the style is classic stop-motion, but in a way that tells a children's tale. In other words, it is technically advanced, but attempts to look simple and aligned. Anderson is known for setting up very crisp looking shots, which is optional for live-action, but a definite for animation. That right there gives some comfort in Anderson taking over an animated venture. The best animation directors need to be able to design their movies, and Anderson is no stranger to this task.
And no Wes Anderson movie is complete without a unique soundtrack of old 1960's rock tunes. When watching Mr. Fox, I had to resist singing along to the songs in the movie, which include stuff from the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Burt Ives, and the Bobby Fuller Four.

Jarvis Cocker's appearance (as a human character, "Petey") is a welcome surprise. Cocker is one of my favorite songwriters, if not one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years.
I was not alone in laughing at the irony of Petey being called a weak songwriter.

I have to say the stop-motion style works remarkably well. The characters are only slightly stylized, but are not painfully realistic. The look is carefully balanced between cute, believability, and realism. And the mechanics of the puppets are one of many, many testaments to the puppet work of McKinnon and Saunders. Its good to see puppets with moving jaws, as opposed to stuck on mouths. And the storybook design works pretty well, although it would have been nice to see the sky looking something else other than sunset orange.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox really is a film that both adults and children can enjoy. No more of the parents saying they like the film, because it teaches their children good morales. Here, children audiences can enjoy the look and actions of the characters, while adults can pick out intellectual stimulations that are equally humorous.

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