Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Screenplay: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach (Novel: Roald Dahl)
  • Length: 87 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG for action, smoking and slang humor.

Adapting one of Roald Dahl’s many children’s books (the most famous being Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Wes Anderson has crafted a new backstory and a new ending that blend in his typical off-beat humor, which has made for a more interesting feature.

Exploring the depths of family relationships, Anderson sticks to familiar territory. The story revolves around a poultry-stealing fox (voiced by George Clooney) who swears off raiding when he and his wife (Meryl Streep) are captured on one of their regular excursions and she reveals to him that she’s pregnant.

Forwarding to the present, a number of Fox Years later, their child Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is a cranky misfit who wants to be an athlete like his dad, but excels at absolutely nothing, which pales in comparison to Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), a visiting cousin, who is great at everything.

Wanting to provide a suitable dwelling for his family, Mr. Fox buys a tree home from where he can see the nasty neighbors who will soon itch his trigger finger and provide an excuse for a few midnight thefts with his new friend and plumber Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky).

The three farmers, the short, stout and vicious Boggis, Bunce and Bean, seek to kill the sneaking fox and set in motion a series of events that bring Fox, his family and their neighbors to reevaluate their goals and their lives.

It’s not hard to go overboard explaining the plot with a film so richly filled with clever literary devices, witty dialogue and interesting situations, but even a film so laboriously detailed can have its share of its faults.

For one, the film lacks an emotional satisfaction. While it’s smart and inventive, it’s almost impossible to care for any of the characters. None of the dire circumstances featured in this caper felt decidedly tense or perilous. Sometimes they were played too much for comedy, which ends up hurting the audience’s anticipation of future events. Even though this is an animated film, there should be times when one must doubt the survival of the characters. Thus, when the film rolls to its inevitable conclusion, a greater sense of joy can be shared. Fantastic Mr. Fox begins and ends on virtually the same level emotionally, which is a fair bit distracting.

Some of the gags in the film, including the substitution of the word “cuss” for more caustic and socially unacceptable phrases, are frequently overused. These situations end up being humorous to start and then slowly fading in amusement until feeling trite.

It’s also hard to stay in the film when a notable voice like Clooney’s is cast in a role that seems far too similar in style to his Ocean’s 11 characters. And that’s probably the main reason Anderson chose him, but ends up being a bit much of a distraction. Similarly, Streep starts the film feeling entirely out of place, though by the end, she kind of blends into the environment, though her distinct inflections are still noticeable. Michael Gambon does quite well as one of the terrible triumvirate, Mr. Bean. It could have been fairly easy to sound identical to Professor Dumbledore in the last four Harry Potter films, but most of the film I was trying to remember who I was listening to.

The most interesting vocal performances in the film come from Schwartzman and Anderson whose young characters are often the more interesting to listen to and are better suited to the animated models used for their characters. As for the rest? Well, Bill Murray plays Bill Murray.

Stop-motion animation is not a new art form. It’s been implemented in various forms or another since the dawn of film, as far back as 1898. But Wes Anderson does a wonderful job making it feel new and interesting. Although many of the set pieces and costumes feel like they were stolen from a little girl’s dollhouse, they still manage to make the film feel stylish and creative. Once you get past the constant and occasionally distracting movement of the hair on these critters, the style feels fluid despite the occasional woodenness.

It’s not a film that may appeal to a lot of kids. The humor and plotting are not always easy for smaller minds to follow, but it’s often colorful and occasionally kid-funny giving parents a reason to drag their kids along without them moaning that they are entirely bored; however, older children and teens, who can understand what’s going on, may still not understand or may feel listless when watching the film.

But, as a piece of art, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a welcome addition to the world of animation where too often the stupid-funny of movies like Ice Age and Monsters vs Aliens might cause any fan of animated features to waiver.