I made a diorama in third grade of Fantastic Mr. Fox- a book which I loved fondly- and seeing this film brought me back to that, only better and bolder, but with the same handmade quality of someone awed by the world they read. It's also wildly funny and cheerfully light-and-heavy all at once. It brings director Wes Anderson's concerns as a filmmaker to light, as usual (dysfunctional family, idiosyncratic touches with the characters, absurd child-but-adult-like comedy), and in a setting that is a fantasy that anyone can attach to. Children will latch on to it because of its cute/creepy designs, and its raucous energy. Adults will eat it up because, like with Where the Wild Things Are, it brings us back to a time when we just want to have a fun time and do things, even if we might know or thing they're wrong, or maybe just to dance at very odd moments.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney, who else?) is a sly guy with a quick mouth and a caring manner. He is a wild animal though, which is why he breaks the promise he made to his wife to not go out and steal chickens after their first child is born. He can't help it really- those nasty trio of farmers, Boggis Bunce and Bean- have all of those chickens and deliciously alcoholic apple cider just waiting for the taking. As it turns out, this makes the farmers angry as hell (or rather Bean mostly, who at one point does one of those manic 'destroy everything in the house' reactions Kane might appreciate), and they go and destroy the Fox home and all the outlying areas.
From there it becomes a battle of wills and, sometimes, real fire power and acorn-bombs and a rabid dog and other wild craziness. Oh, and the stop-motion. Thanks be to someone out there: there's filmmakers still going through the painstaking but endlessly creative process of frame-by-frame film-making where it takes dozens of hours to get just a few seconds of film. People like Anderson and Henry Selick seek out the limitations so they can break through them, or toy around with them as much as possible.
With the characterization of 'Mr. Fox', Anderson and his animation team gives us creatures whose hair is always slightly blowing in the wind (something that must have been hard to attain being shot frame by frame), have eyes that are motorized and look like real human eyes almost, and water (or apple cider) when it flows becomes rather dreamlike and appears like we haven't seen it before. That all of the characters have something amazing to their features, be it the way Mr. Fox gnarls his teeth and then does his trademark whistle or to how Rat clicks his fingers like a West Side Story villain, there's something happening every other second. You might figure out how this is all done, but it's not as much concern as what they do with their creations, like kids with action figures making an epic on 8mm film.
Fantastic Mr. Fox has the childlike wonder, the modestly dazzling sets and production design (art-Anderson is basically the way to put it by now with his films, from the title cards of species identification to maps and chapter-headings), and an original sense of perspective when it comes to action scenes and simple little camera moves that comes off extraordinary in this setting. But it's also, mostly, hysterically funny. It's not a crude funny like the Hangover or too bizarre like the Men Who Stare at Goats. It's sometimes just plain awkward, or just totally unexpected, or built around an absurdity that comes up and down like the explanation of how to play Whackbat, or Mrs. Bean and her blindness. Or just a line of dialog ("He's just another rat found in the back of a Chinese restaurant") sets off a belly laugh that's hard to contain. This is, at the least, the funniest of all the Dahl adaptations, keeping to the surrealism of animals and humans alike, while sticking to a perfectly dry, off-handed approach by its filmmaker.
As with everything else in the movie, the comedy feels home-grown, not in a Hollywood lab where everything's tested. This goes too for the excellent voice work that brings Anderson/Baumbach's dialog to fruition. In the theatrical trailer, when first seen, the voices of Clooney and Streep and Bill Murray almost distracted from the quality of the animation. But in full context, they all work, even Anderson himself as a real-estate agent creature. And the outdoor-not-in-studio recording of the voices does add something extra: you feel like there's something real going on, not just in fantasy, thanks to the actors and their "on-set" work. I'm sure some extra ideas or expressiveness came out of this, because the performances are a great part of what makes this world so tangible: we know these people and animals, sort of, at least as much as any other Wes Anderson movie.
And sure, they're foxes, but why not connect with the theme while we're at it? The film is lovely and insane, smart and silly, lovable and (for a few moments) a little scary, with a kick-ass soundtrack straight out of a record collection (and musical store) that connects just right right this spectacular place of someplace-England. And hey, why not some existentialism to top it off: "Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?" How indeed? "I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds illegal."
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