Friday, December 04, 2009

'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is aptly named

Much like the recent adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” director Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is marked by a sophistication and an unwillingness to pander that is lacking for most kid-friendly entertainment.

As with the Pixar films, this is an animated feature with substance.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the latest film to utilize stop-motion animation, a technique dating back to the original 1933 “King Kong,” in which models are slowly moved one painstaking shot at a time.

This isn't the first time Dahl has been given the stop-motion treatment. That honor goes to 1996's “James and the Giant,” which was directed by Henry Salick, who also directed Tim Burton's “Nightmare Before Christmas,” one of the most popular and memorable stop-motion animated films. Salick, who provided stop-motion animated creatures for Anderson's “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” was set to collaborate with Anderson again for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but made “Coraline” instead.

Anderson is a rare modern director who is a true auteur. He has developed a distinct style, tone and themes that he continues to utilize. His films are marked by a dry, deadpan sense of humor and walk the line between comedy and pathos. Throughout his films, which include “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” he explores how dysfunctional families manage to function in spite of deceit, distance and other dubious behavior.

Dahl's children's novels, which include such popular book-to-film adaptations as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Witches,” and “Matilda,” always featured sinister undertones. Things would always work out, but as an author he had no problem sending his young protagonists into dark territory. Oddly enough the mash up of Dahl and Anderson's sensibilities works creating a film with a fresh voice.

The plot centers on Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a retired chicken thief turned journalist, who comes out of retirement for one last heist, or rather three: the local farmers Bean, Boggis and Bunce. The farmers don't take kindly to the pilfering and wag war against Mr. Fox and his family. Mr. Fox and the other animals in the valley are forced to literally go underground.

Anderson utilizes this framework to explore his usual themes. Anderson has transformed the titular Mr. Fox into his familiar flawed patriarch and added a rivalry between Mr. Fox's son (Jason Schwartzman) and his nephew (Eric Anderson). Lessons are learned and there's a familiar moral that we should embrace our differences. This can be an eye-rolling message when in the wrong hands, but Anderson delivers it in a way that feels honest.

Adults have a tendency to dismiss animated movies as just for kids, but this a film that will probably appeal more to parents than kids. The dialogue is very much pitched at adults. Anderson uses an amusing gimmick of substituting the word cuss in the place of all profanities. My personal favorite: cluster-cuss.

There's still plenty of bright, colorful and imaginative action and slapstick antics to keep kids in the audience appeased. The complicated game whackbat, the use of tranquilizer-laced blueberries to dispose of attack dogs and the way in which the animals ravenously eat their food should tickle the funny bone of kids and adults alike.

The voice acting, which also includes Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox, Michael Gambon as Bean, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson, is splendid. Traditionally, voice-over actors are kept separated in their own little booths, but Anderson had his actors recorded together. Does this make a drastic difference in the vocal performances? It isn't hugely noticeable, but the caliber of the performances is excellent, so perhaps it did make an impact.

As for the animation, the style seems to be a throwback to stop-motion of the 1960s, similar to the kind used for such beloved holiday specials as “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.” The animation here is vastly more refined and intricate with astounding detail on the puppets but at the same time is not as polished as Salick's “Coraline.” It works, though, as it gives the film a more of a homemade feel that really is delightful.

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