Wes Anderson has been a difficult director for me to appreciate. The aggressively composed mise-en-scene and deadpan tone of his films invites comparisons with Stanley Kubrick, a director I like a lot. But while Kubrick had a dark, Swiftian outlook on life, Anderson is an unabashedly twee sentimentalist, and that has always seemed to clash with his formal commitments. The result is that although I am closer in spirit to Anderson than I am to Kubrick, his films have a greater difficulty at engaging my heart rather than my head. Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of two exceptions to this (the other being Moonrise Kingdom, which I am still in the process of, well, processing).
Fantastic Mr. Fox is ostensibly a stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name. I say ostensibly because, although in this case I am unfamiliar with the source material, the movie is for all intents and purposes a Wes Anderson comedy with talking animals. Which makes it a really weird movie when you ask who it’s meant for: unlike the average Pixar movie it makes no real pretensions to being for kids, but it’s also too childlike in its aesthetic to be taken as an adult comedy. But in 2009 I loved it, and seven(!) years later it still holds up, so whatever.
Anyway, Fantastic Mr. Fox begins with Mr. Fox (George Clooney) swearing off a life of chicken raiding so that he can raise a family with Felicity (Meryl Streep). The film then jumps ahead two years (twelve in fox years), finding Mr. Fox as a newspaper columnist raising Ash, an awkward teen (Jason Schwartzman). After moving into a new neighbourhood with three of the meanest farmers in the valley, Mr. Fox succumbs to the temptation to return to his old way of life. He begins a series of clandestine robberies, attempting to keep his activities hidden from his wife, and in the process causing a disaster that threatens both their marriage and their existence.
(In typing up that paragraph I noticed just how similar the plot sounds to The Incredibles, from a few years prior. Just an observation)
There’s also a b-plot centered around Ash and his overachieving cousin, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Anderson). Ash is awkward, moody and doesn’t seem to have any real talents; Kristofferson is athletic, charming and seems like the perfect guy. Cue teenage angst drama.
It’s been said before that stop-motion animation suits Anderson’s aesthetic quite well. But beyond that, it also highlights how this movie clicks for me in a way that, say, The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t: if there’s any medium which requires a very fussed-over and stylized approach, it’s animation. And that alone makes Anderson’s style feel much more natural.
But also the writing is just so sharp, and poignantly captures the trials of trying to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood (and, in particular, marriage) when you’re a bit of a social deviant. The adolescent stuff is also handled quite well: I like how Ash’s character arc refuses to resolve itself along any of the usual routes, because he’s still a kid and of course he doesn’t have stuff figured out. Just as importantly, it’s pretty funny stuff, and the script never forgets the weirdness of animals acting like people, without making the comedy too broad.
Visually, the movie moves in the opposite direction that the rest of stop-motion is going towards: things look scruffy and the animation is often choppy, reminiscent of something from the 80s. Voices were apparently recorded outdoors, although I couldn’t spot the difference in quality (and on that note I guess this is technically an example of celebrity voice casting, a trend that I am not entirely comfortable with. But given that part of Anderson’s schtick seems to be getting big names to recite his rather mannered dialogue, I’m willing to give it a pass). The soundtrack, with the likes of the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones, also points in an analog direction.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is still an eccentric little movie with the ability to bewilder those who don’t quite know what they’re in for. Those seeking a good Dahl adaptation should probably watch The Witches. But otherwise it’s pretty great.