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Fantastic Mr. Fox
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Fox On The Run"
5 stars

When filmmaker Wes Anderson burst onto the scene with the cult classics “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” he was almost universally hailed as one of the most intriguing new directors around. However, over the course of his next few films (“The Royal Tennenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited”), there have been rumblings from some people that he has essentially been making the same thing over and over again--arch comedy-dramas about the strained relationships amidst the members of bizarre family units told in an increasingly stylized manner that constantly reminded viewers that they were watching not just a movie but a Wes Anderson movie--with gradually decreasing returns and that it would be advisable for him to try something new in order to stretch his artistic wings and prove that he could handle something different. With his latest project, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story “Fantastic Mr. Fox” done in stop-motion animation, it certainly seems at first glance as if Anderson has gone off on a decidedly different direction in an effort to prove his range. However, much like his central character, Anderson simply cannot keep his true nature at bay for too long and before long, the film transforms itself from just another adaptation of a beloved story into a work that fits in so perfectly with the other entries in Anderson’s flexography that it feels as if he devised it himself completely out of whole cloth. The result is one of the oddest family-oriented movies in recent memory--perhaps the first one to have its lead character simultaneously emblazoned on Happy Meal boxes and the cover of “Film Comment” and seem perfectly home in both places--and one of the most delightful to boot.

The film opens with the suave, dapper and charming Mr. Fox (George Clooney) preparing to once again do what he does best--stealing chickens with “Heroes & Villains” by the Beach Boys on the soundtrack and his beloved Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) by his side. Unfortunately, the two wind up in a trap (“Hmm. . .it’s not spring-loaded. . .”) and when his better half chooses this moment to announce that she is pregnant, he vows that if they manage to escape, he will put his wild days of chicken-poaching behind him and finally settle down. Miraculously, they do escape and when the story picks up a few years down the line, Mr. Fox has exchanged his dangerous former line of work for the tranquil life of a newspaper columnist and family man. However, domestic bliss doesn’t completely satisfy Fox (“I’m a wild animal”) and like any other man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, he tries to find something that will remind him of who he used to be and hits upon the idea of covertly raiding the properties of powerful local farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (“horrible crooks, so different in looks but nonetheless equally mean”) for poultry and cider. As Fox grows bolder and bolder with his thefts, Boggis, Bunce and Bean respond in kind by digging through his lair, employing sharpshooters and preventing him, or any other of the creatures in the area, from going anywhere. For a while, Fox is able to placate his neighbors by stealing enough food for a giant feast but when the farmers launch one last attack, Fox is forced to finally take responsibility for his actions--especially to Mrs. Fox--and make everything right before it is too late.

While an ordinary adaptation of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” might have simply concentrated on the action-oriented material described above, Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach have made the unusual decision to give equal focus to the strained personal relationships involving Fox and his family and friends. For example, he has a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is a peculiar lad and while Fox clearly cares for him, it is equally clear that he doesn’t quite understand him. By comparison, visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) is much easier to get--he is friendly, polite, handsome and athletic--and when Fox responds to his charms with ease, Ash winds up becoming jealous and resentful of his cousin while questioning whether his father really loves him at all. Amongst his own friends, including lawyer Badger (Bill Murray) and opossum Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), Fox is a silver-tongued devil who can convince practically everyone he knows to go along with him largely based on the strength of his magnetic possibility but when his recklessness winds up endangering them all, they are genuinely hurt by his self-centered ways and he eventually realizes that it will take more than charm to mend the bridges that he has so thoughtlessly broken.

As I noted before, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” shares any number of elements with Anderson’s past films--both thematic (including unsettled familial dynamics, quirky individuals finding themselves unexpectedly pulled into a communal dynamic and the sad melancholy of the overachiever) and stylistic (such as the deliberately skewed surroundings, the ritualized behavior and quirky costumes of the characters and eclectic soundtrack choices that here run the gamut from Burl Ives to the Rolling Stones to Jarvis Crocker)--and while the notion of a filmmaker fusing his own personal obsessions onto the framework of the work of an equally distinctive writer would seem to have disaster written all over it, the blending of his and Dahl’s sensibilities pays off beautifully here. One of the things that separated Dahl’s work from other children’s authors was the fact that he didn’t always sugarcoat his sometimes dark material in an attempt to appeal to his younger audiences--he instead treated them with respect and intelligence and assumed that they could handle such things and for the most part, they did (it was parents who were the ones more put off by his material). While Anderson and Baumbach may veer from the original story, they don’t veer from that approach and as a result, the film has a dramatic sensibility and emotional weight to it that is rarely seen in American film these days, especially in ones featuring talking foxes. The material involving Ash’s jealousy of his cousin will no doubt ring true to many younger viewers and the way that the conflict is resolved is handled beautifully. Along the same lines, the moment in which Mrs. Fox realizes what Mr. Fox has been doing, her distraught and bitter reaction provokes the kind of powerful emotional response that one would hardly expect to come from an animated fox. Another intriguing aspect to the film is that while there is little doubt as to how the story will be resolved, there is a genuine sense of menace at times--Fox loses his beloved tail to a shotgun blast and one character comes to an end that, while richly deserved, is portrayed in a manner so surprisingly straightforward that it may disturb the youngest viewers a little bit. This approach may well limit the film’s popularity in the same way that Spike Jonze’ similar approach may have affected the reaction to “Where the Wild Things Are” but those who are on its peculiar wavelength are likely to react to it in a stronger and more passionate manner than your average cookie-cutter entertainment.

Despite all that, I don’t want to give the impression that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is overly grim and glum because it is actually one of the brightest and funniest films of the year. For starters, the vocal casting is absolutely perfect--George Clooney gets to do an inspired parody of the slickster type that he played in the “Ocean’s 11” films, Meryl Streep is warm and cheerful and strong as his wife, Jason Schwartzman is hilarious and occasionally touching as the misunderstood Ash, Willem Dafoe is appropriately menacing as the French rat who becomes an enemy to be reckoned with and Bill Murray completely makes up for his lazy voiceover work in the “Garfield” movies with his strangely sublime work as Badger. Visually, the film is a marvel from start to finish with the sequence in which Fox and his family dig to escape the clutches of Boggis, Bunce and Bean and the bit in which a school coach (Owen Wilson) explains the particulars of an exceptionally complicated sport serving as two of the most notable highlights. The dialogue is hilarious as well and one of the most notable things about that is that the lines are funny not because they are straight-out laugh lines but because they simply sound perfect--although the line “I’m sick of your double-talk--we have rights!” may not sound like a big laugh on the printed page, I assure you that when heard in context, it inspires the biggest laugh since Bill Murray’s last line in “Zombieland.” And if you are an art-house goon, you may find yourself getting bonus laughs from all of the inadvertent similarities between this film and, of all things, “Antichrist.”

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a great film--one of the best of the year and one of the very best to date from Wes Anderson--but because it largely doesn’t play by the rules of contemporary family filmmaking, there is the possibility that enough people may come away from it feeling confused and disappointed that many potential viewers may stay away from it and spend their time and money on something a little more predictable. The funny thing is that many of the best family films--“The Wizard of Oz,“ “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Popeye,” to name a few--have always engendered this kind of reaction upon their initial release and it has only been after the people who saw them as kids exposed them to their own children that they became beloved favorites. My guess is that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is likely to have a similar fate but if your kids are bright and clever and resourceful, you should make it a point to take them to see it now because I suspect they will appreciate the gesture for years to come. And if you do, be prepared to hear the word “cuss” bandied about your house for a long time afterwards.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18292&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/25/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

1/21/16 David H. A whimsical, witty stop-motion masterpiece! 5 stars
10/21/10 millersxing At times feels like pantomime. Overall it's a wonderfully droll film. 4 stars
2/23/10 pin anderson does it again. 5 stars
12/13/09 The GLC You WILL leave happy, unless you are a turd 5 stars
12/13/09 Micah Occasionally funny (especially the titanium card and dying rat) and good voices but too dry 3 stars
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  13-Nov-2009 (PG)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2010


  DVD: 23-Mar-2010

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