Wes Anderson’s first film adaptation, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, may be the director’s most fully realized piece to date. Witty, thoughtful and sharp as a tack, this little film is going to astonish audiences of all ages, and not for the usual reasons we say an animated film will impress. Written with gifted family dramatist Noah Baumbach, the film is about the growing pains we all experience at the various stages of life. It’s also about sentient rodents going to war with big business.
The movie starts off at a sprint, quickly acclimating the viewer to its quirky animation style. Going vintage, like any hipster should, Mr. Anderson and his team of animators opted to use stop motion puppets instead of the “cleaner,” more mainstream digital options. The same problem that befell puppeteer Willis O’Brien on 1933’s King Kong still exists today as the medium hasn’t changed all that much. Any time a puppeteer repositions a fur-covered animal between shots, the hair gets moved around and thus appears to wave around in the final cut piece, pullulating with every muscular motion. The characters move extremely fast and the camera whips around this tiny world. In something of a writerly coup, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Baumbach structure the script to match the quickened pace of the action. They have composed a heap of dialogue that cuts like a knife; for a second I thought perhaps Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had penned this film, and that’s a hell of a compliment.
George Clooney plays the title character. His vocal energy is probably the biggest asset to the film, though the entire cast does an amazing job. It is Mr. Clooney, however, who quickened the pace of his talking and made Mr. Fox’s bright eyes by backing them up with a deeply developed personality. For better or worse, I still know I’m watching a movie with Clooney in it, whereas Meryl Streep, who plays his Mrs. Fox, slyly slips below the radar, disembodying her celebrity from the role. Jason Schwartzman, Mr. Anderson’s perpetually adolescent alter-ego, shows off his impeccable comic timing as Ash, Mr. Fox’s aesthetically challenged son. No one whines like Schwartzman. Eric Anderson, the director’s brother, and Bill Murray also offer notably hilarious vocal additions.
Visually, the film resembles many of Mr. Anderson’s other films. We have the bright, carefully chosen color palette and the overtly symmetrical cinematography. This works even better in the animated world than it has in his live action work, mainly due to the fact that over-stylization is the name of the game in animation. Neither a live-action nor a hand-drawn version of this film would have worked so well. There is a beautiful concurrence of good choices happening here. In fact, the subject is perfect for this particular director’s honed style.
Wes Anderson has spent the bulk of his career making, essentially, the same film. Many filmmakers do this and some aren’t any worse for wear (how many times has Woody Allen made the same film and not lost points?), but in Anderson’s, whatever ghost he was chasing from the outset seems to have been caught with The Royal Tennebaums. Yet he kept chasing it on two outings. Fantastic Mr. Fox is something different; a step forward. It most closely resembles Bottle Rocket, but with the benefit of the director’s years of experience, which are obvious every step of the way. For one, most of the family drama is kept to a minimum, focusing more on next-action plot, a rarity in his talky pictures. It is a great step forward, and I am hopeful to see more daring exercises from Anderson in the decade to come.