Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 23, 2009 7:41 am 
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(Released wide in the US on Thanksgiving Day.)

Anybody can tell you that an animated film written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach and directed by Mr. Anderson will be more about family rivalries and quirky characters than about cute animals, despite Fantastic Mr. Fox's basis in a famous Roald Dahl children's tale that's been called "great for reading aloud to three- to seven-year-olds." Dahl was a Brit, and much of this production is English. But it's a hybrid of Yank and UK elements, with the animals, headed by George Clooney as Mr. Fox and Meryl Streep as his wife, with Anderson regulars like Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Angelika Huston, and Adrien Brody, are a star-studded and somewhat cultish American voice crew. The animals outwit three despicable farmers and steal their livestock for food. These agricultural baddies, described by Dahl as "Boggis and Bunce and Bean/One fat, one short, one lean./These horrible crooks/So different in looks/Were nonetheless equally mean," ae not only humans, but in the film contrast in all being played by Brits. Mr. Fox premiered as the gala opening night film at the London Film Festival, with Mr. Clooney on hand to add glamor. Media reaction was positive, though privately some English viewers were less pleased with the "Americaniation" of the material.

The stop-motion animation using stuffed dolls -- especially with Anderson's reliance on extreme cloxeups -- may result in the foxes and other critters appearing seedy at times, but the process is executed so slickly and photographed so brightly (with heavy emphasis on orangey earth colors) that the contrast with more hi tech pixilations and computerizations may not be so great to the untutored eye as some think. More serous for the kid audience is, well, how serious the material is, as well as more complicated, in this enlarged version of the Roald Dahl story. Take the quote offered by IMDb:

Mr. Fox: [sighs] Who am I, Kylie?
Kylie: Who how? What now?
Mr. Fox: Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I'm saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?
Kylie: I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds illegal.

Not very funny, and right over the heads of the seven-year-olds; but still, pretty cool stuff for an animated children's tale. Fox (one wants to say Clooney, so ably does he insinuate himself into the role) is often referring to the fact that they are finally just "wild animals." And the film is most captivating when the various creatures eat -- explosively devouring a pile of food and leaving crushed fragments -- or burrow into the ground -- again with explosive, instinctive animality. One wishes these hints of the savage creature inside the talking animated model came more often, and more surprisingly. These are places where Mr. Fox feels truly original.

It might have been nice if the film hadn't gotten so elaborately caught up in the grand war campaign between Fox and his friends (no, there's no Fassbinder in here) and the three agri-business meanies (that's what they almost become in the film) played by Robin Hurlstone (Boggis), Hugo Guinness (Bunce) and Michael Gambon (Beane). Though some British viewers have chafed at this, the intimate dysfunctionality (so typical of the maker of The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited) provides the best stuff, the moments when the dialogue sparkles and charms and makes you think. The script is so subtle, even with stuffed animals, at nuancing the conflicts between Fox and his wife; at conveying their son Ash's (Schwartzman's) insecurities and his rivalries with the too-talented visiting cousin, Kristofersson (Eric Chase Anderson), that you may wish the film focused more on the intimate stuff. As with Anderson's other movies, it's character, not action, that matters. So you kind of wonder why there is so much action. Nonetheless there are action sequences that work very well, which is perhaps where the animaters come in, the vast Visual Effects crew, and cinematographer Tristan Oliver -- who seem to have had a life of their own and partly had to fend for themselves in London, with Anderson directing things from a distance, via e-mail, from his Paris apartment. But if the direction was phoned-in, it seems to have worked pretty cussing well (an oddity of the script is its substituting the word "cus" where a stronger swear word, including the F-one, is meant). Fantastic Mr. Fox is an animated feature that's both sophisticated and winning. Those (including a couple of name New York reviewers) who say this is Anderson's best movie yet, however, may just not like his other movies that much. Wes does wonderful work here with the voices of Clooney, Streep, Schwartzman, Wilson, and the rest, and he's shown he can coordinate a great animation team but he does even better work as an auteur when he gets to put human bodies as well as voices on the screen. Still, this is the year's smartest and most winning animated feature.

(Originally reviewed as part of the San Francisco Film Society 4th Annual Animation Festival, Fantastic Mr. Fox premiered at the London Film Festival on its opening night October 14, 2009 and opened in UK theaters October 23. US release: limited, November 13, wide, November 25.)

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