Fantastic Mr. Fox

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After two resounding failures, both artistically and commercially, "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and "The Darjeeling Limited," the more eccentric than truly brilliant director Wes Anderson is back on terra ferma with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," his first animated film, using old-fashioned handmade stop-motion techniques to tell the story of Roald Dahl's best-selling children’s book. 

Trailer emanuellevy.com/videos/view.cfm?id=66

World-premiering as opening night of the London Film Fest, and playing at AFI Los Angeles Film Fest later this month, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" will be released by Fox in November in a platform mode, beginning November 13 in limited pattern, and then expanding nation-wide around Thanksgiving.  

 
For better or worse (I think the latter), Anderson again proves that, no matter what the source material (published literary text or original), no matter what the genre, and no matter who his collaborator is (in this case, co-scribe is the gifted director Noah Baumbach), he is a filmmaker with a an unmistakably distinctive worldview, which he imposes through narrative format, sensibility, and tone on each and every picture he's making.
 
Indeed, unlike visionary director Spike Jonze, who's also made this season an eccentric (if dramatically flawed) picture about childhood for adults, "Where the Wild Things Are," but whose work varies stylistically from film to film, Anderson tends to repeat himself; he's sort of locked in his own cinematic milieu. (Part of the blame is attributable to critics such as myself, who rushed to declare Anderson a genuine auteur after only a few pictures, particularly after the 1998 "Rushmore," by far his best feature to date.)  
 
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is essentially a dysfunctional family tale, with all the turmoil and dynamics that go along with it, a theme recognizable from all of Anderson’s previous films. The movie's format, like that of Anderson's former films, is that of a book, with chapter headings and illustrated titles. The recurrent tone of his work could be described as bittersweet, wryly funny, and occasionally Melancholy. The writing, as always, is invariably uneven: Anderson's scenarios are sporadically interspersed with some witty one-liners and wisecracks. The story and the way it unfolds, the way shots are composed and edited, the pacing all bear Anderson's signature work. 
 
End result here is an old-fashioned, sort of a retro cool (but not in the sense of the work of a postmodern filmmaker like Tarantino), intermittently entertaining feature, which may be better appreciated than really liked, and may be more fully embraced, by mature viewers than younger ones.
 
Also like Jonze's latest work, the best element of Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is the acting, particularly its two lead males, George Clooney as the titular character, the headstrong family don, and Jason Schwartzman, as his son. Meryl Streep, who voices Mrs. Fox, looks good and is decent but no more, a possible function of the size of her role (decidedly secondary) and the limitations of the writing; it's tough to be charming when you play a nudging mom and are asked to repeat the same lines over and over.
 
British Author Roald Dahl enjoys something of a cinematic revival, what with Tim Burton's live-action "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," starring Johnny Depp, and before that the charming animation "James and the Giant Peach." And now comes a screen rendition of Dahl's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," first published in 1970 by Alfred Knopf in the U.S. and George Allen & Unwin in the U.K., with illustrations by Donald Chaffin. Dahl’s beloved book has enchanted and delighted generations of both parents and their children for almost 40 years.
 
Anderson's picture raises the issue of originality for originality's sake versus artistic quality and coherence. Just because "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is defined by an original visual conception, and can't be compared to other films, doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good movie, one that's able to sustain interest throughout its running time. To be fair, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is very short (87 minutes), briskly paced, and easy to take, if not to consistently enjoy, because it doesn't require much from the viewers by way of attention.
 
Whereas Dahl’s darkly humorous tale of the noble and charming "Fantastic Mr. Fox" enthralled and delighted wide, cross-generational readership globally, Fox should expect from their "Fox" movie mixed-to-positive critical response and also mixed commercial results, though better than the disappointing grosses of Anderson's last two outings, which were expensive to make, just like the latest one.
 
The storyline is simplicity itself, and the sporadic charm that the movie boasts is in how the tale is told both narratively and especially visually.  Anderson and co-scribe Baumbach deserve credit for taking a rather slim book (about 80 pages) and expanding it to a feature-length movie with new episodes and new characters. 
 
Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep) seem to live an idyllic home life with their young, precautious son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and their visiting young nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who begins to irritate Ash. 
 
Early on, we learn that Mr. Fox, a newspaper columnist, is actually a former bird thief, who, against the advice of his smart lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray, a regular presence in Anderson's films), decides to move his family into an expensive breech tree, bordering three farms.  In tune with our zeitgeist (an dire economy, Mr. Fox comes across as a nouveau riche, who lives dangerously way and above his financial means. 
 
After twelve years of steady bourgeois domesticity, the quiet, bucolic existence proves to be too boring for Mr. Fox.  He keeps claiming that he and his likes are creatures with "wild animalistic instincts," much to the resentment of the more conservative matron, Mrs. Fox.  
 
The temptation of living close to the farms proves irresistible, and before long Fox, alongside his sporty nephew Kristofferson, and his opposum pal, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), is back to his old, wild ways, raiding the three farms for geese, chicken, turkeys, and cider.
 
Almost to prove his theory, Mr. Fox unwittingly slips back into his old ways as a sneaky thief, knowing all too well that in doing so, he endangers not only his beloved family, but of the whole animal community. 
 
In short, Mr. Fox puts his entire family and neighborhood through various ordeals. Trapped underground without enough food or reliable shelter to survive, the animals must band together to fight against the evil Farmers—call them the fat, the short, and the lean–who blessedly inject some much-desired energy into the proceedings, not least because they are voiced by terrific thespians, including Brit Michael Gambon.
 
The trio of Framers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, are determined to capture the audacious, fantastic Fox, vowing to rid themselves of this furry menace while using all the necessary means and weaponry at their disposal.   Will Fox survive the risks and dangers faced by him and his clan? Are his natural instincts, as opposed to rational thinking, sufficient assets to save his family and friends?
 
Anderson also added to the story the whack-bat, new sports that's an amalgam of cricket, rounders, and baseball played by Ash and his cousin. The rules of the game are outlined in a sequence featuring Ash’s Coach Skip (a ferret voiced by Anderson’s long-time collaborator Owen Wilson). Pragmatically, the game has ridiculously complicated rules and physical funny activity. But symbolically, it is about Ash trying to get his father’s attention. An amazing athlete, Fox wins all the trophies in whack-bat, and so Ash failing or succeeding at the game means a lot to him, and plays all the way into the film's buoyant ending.
 
In terms of dramatic or emotional involvement, the picture is decidedly uneven, featuring quite a few self-indulgent and repetitious sequences. But the "primitive" look of the film, with its distinctive color palette of various shadings of yellows and browns, makes it seem fresher than it actually is, courtesy of the large crew employed on this expensive enterprise
 
Special kudos go to the production and costume design and the animation team. Take Clooney's look as an example. The epitome of the cool macho patriarch, Mr. Fox wears a double-breasted, yellow-orange colored corduroy suit, a custard-hued sweater and two stylish wheat stalks peeking out of his breast pocket.   In one of the film's funniest (and touching) moments, Mr. Fox's tail is cut off, which leads to all kinds of hilarious and sad consequences.
 
Also excellent is Schwartzman as Ash, a geeky misfit, and comic book obsessive who doesn't relate to his father. Confused and misunderstood, Ash wants to be a smart boy and great athlete, just like his dad, but above all, he seeks love, approval and recognition, as the aforementioned game sequences demonstrate.
 
The great composer Alexandre Desplat ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") hits the right emotional tones with his grand score. However, as usual with Anderson's films, the soundtrack for "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a strange, incoherent blend of old and new tunes, ranging from "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," the theme from "Day for Night," and the Beach Boys' version of "Ol' Man River."   Musical transitions, like some of the narrative ones, are often abrupt and thus jarring.
 
End Note
 
Though Roald Dahl died in 1990, his work remains as influential and popular as ever, with many of his celebrated children’s books having been adapted for the big screen, among them Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (which was the source of both the 1972 feature, "Willy Lonka and the Chocolate Factory," and the 2005 film starring Johnny Depp), "James And The Giant Peach," "Matilda," and "The Witches," with several others in various stages of development.
 
Cast
 
Mr. Fox – George Clooney
Mrs. Fox – Meryl Streep
Ash – Jason Schwartzman
Badger – Bill Murray
Kylie – Wally Wolodarsky
Kristofferson – Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean – Michael Gambon
Rat – Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip – Owen Wilson
Petey – Jarvis Cocker
Credits
 
A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Indian Paintbrush and Regency Enterprises of an American Empirical picture.
Produced by Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson. Executive producers, Steven Rales, Arnon Milchan.
Co-producer, Molly Cooper.
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Screenplay, Anderson, Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl.
Camera , Tristan Oliver; supervising editor, Andrew Weisblum.
Music, Alexandre Desplat; music supervisor, Randall Poster.
Production designer, Nelson Lowry.
Art diector, Francesca Maxwell.
Supervising sound editors, David Evans, Jacob Ribicoff; re-recording mixers, Sven Taits, Steve Browell.
Visual effects supervisor, Tim Ledbury.
Animation director, Mark Gustafson; animation supervisor, Mark Waring.
Puppets fabricator, MacKinnon and Saunders.
Line producer, Simon Quinn.
Aassistant director, Kev Harwood.
 
MPAA Rating: PG.
 
Running time: 87 Minutes.