Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox might be my favorite Roald Dahl adaptation of all time. When I say that, I’m speaking of Roald Dahl adaptations like The Witches (1990), Matilda (’96), James and the Giant Peach (also ’96), and both versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005 with that title, 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). The stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox may not best the pure Dahl we were blessed to see in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, You Only Live Twice and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Dahl wrote screeplay drafts of the first two and provided stories for six episodes of the latter), but forms a hybrid Anderson/Dahl film that manages to enhance the creative force coming from each man without infringing upon the sensibilities of the other.
This fall has been a season for contemporary adaptations of children’s books from my past, with this opening relatively close to Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, but where Jonze brought the story of Max and the Wild Things into my adulthood to remind me what it was like being a child, The Fantastic Mr Fox brought my childhood sense of wonder back from the past and let me stare lovingly at it for 87 minutes.
Wes Anderson has always exercised a great degree of control in his framing and composition, and being forced to create the entire world of Mr. Fox, right down to tiny pieces of silverware, has built an autumnal world where green doesn’t exist. Add in the “boiling” effect created when stop-motion animators work with real fur and the film seems like the end of an era. The visual look of the film takes about 5 minutes to get used to, but after the limitations have been set, Anderson doesn’t shy away from potentially problematic visuals like smoke, liquids and shots filled with moving parts sculpted in minute detail.
Anderson’s visual style and the screenplay by Anderson and The Squid and the Whale author Noel Baumbach adds depth to the story Dahl created without violating the bounds of the original story and the added elements find the perfect place between Dahl and Anderson to nestle in and become cannon. The story of the book concerns a debonair Fox (George Clooney) stealing food from three evil farmers – Boggis, Bunce and Bean (Bean voiced by Michael Gambon in the film) – only to see the same three farmers attempt to dig the Fox out of his home. The plot of the book takes up the middle of the film, with some Wes Anderson family dynamics adding most of the additional material, including Fox’s loner son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his attempts to impress his father. Where Dahl’s version is more about Fox’s mid-life crisis causing him to lose his home and endanger his friends, Anderson’s version has an additional storyline about being an outcast and how everyone’s differences are special.
Schwartzman does well in his first animated appearance, adding many of the repeat lines I keep rattling off to others who have seen the movie. Things like: “I don’t have a bandit hat, but I modified this tube sock,” and “I can fit through there, you want to know why? I’m tiny.” Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray and Eric Anderson (Wes’ brother who plays Kristofferson, the super athletic fox cousin) all turn in subtle but excellent voice work, even if Streep is criminally underused for only a handful of lines.
Overall, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is an easy film to break down into it’s various elements that elicit some sort of nostalgia, be it for Dahl, stop-motion animation or Wes Anderson before he went semi-crazy with The Darjeeling Limited. However, when the film starts rolling, all these outwardly obvious tropes become the gears that propel the mechanism into a working piece of family entertainment. Not just working, but one of my favorites all year. The Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t long enough to let it’s wit and inherent coolness start to grate on its audience, and it ends in joyous dance.
In a year when most of our children’s films have either been pointless tripe (Monsters Vs. Aliens) or flicks that skew towards adults almost to a fault (Up and Where The Wild Things Are), it’s been the two stop-motion animated films, not the CGI masterpieces that have brought children’s entertainment into the fray of “family entertainment.” Both Coraline (Dir: Henry Selick, now on DVD!) and The Fantastic Mr. Fox never stop being entertaining or visually stunning, even though they are on the cutting edge of a dying art.
I’m looking forward to the debate when Up, Fox and Coraline go head to head for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award.