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Using stop-action animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox beautifully combines a new tone with an old look.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox/TM and ©2008 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or dupllication.

3 out of 4 stars


Fantastic Mr. Fox

  • Directed by Wes Anderson
  • Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
  • Starring George Clooney and Meryl Streep
  • Classification: PG

So very odd and yet familiar too, the dysfunctional families in Wes Anderson's films have always seemed to exist in a fractured fairy tale world, a strange and funny and darkly whimsical place unrooted in time, where adults never quite grow up but instead oscillate between endearing and reprehensible, childish and childlike. Consequently, it's a natural fit for Anderson to adapt a children's book, especially one from Roald Dahl who, like all the best writers for kids, is himself a master of strange doings and an adroit blender of the bitter and the sweet. For all these reasons, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a happy marriage of sensibilities, yet make no mistake about who has the upper hand in this union. The tale may be Dahl's, but there's a whole new wag to it - this is decidedly, weirdly and, at best, wonderfully a Wes Anderson movie.

The distinction is rooted in two key decisions. The first was essential: Given its short length, the original story needed to be fleshed out to feature proportions. With an assist from his frequent co-writer Noah Baumbach, here's where Anderson puts his stamp on the yarn - adding a few characters to the mix, blacker shades to Mr. Fox's know-it-all personality, and several layers of dysfunctional tension to his vulpine family. More about that later, but now back to the second decision: to use the stop-action method of animation, an old-fashioned and labour-intensive technique that gives the picture an instantly classic look - yes, unrooted in time.

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The new tone and the old look combine neatly right from the opening frame, when, to the strains of TheBallad of Davy Crockett , the thieving Mr. Fox and his young bride are on the hunt. Cocky to a fault, he gets caught in a literal trap, which then turns metaphoric when the missus announces, "I'm pregnant." Mere minutes in, the "king of the wild frontier" has been busted to a vassal, domesticated and tamed.

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Seven years later, his fur confined in a corduroy jacket, he's traded in thievery for journalism, writing a newspaper column that nobody reads. Needless to say, Mr. Fox ain't happy - his soul has grown as moribund as his profession. No less surprising, his wife is quite content in their shabby but secure foxhole. So the seeds of discord are sown, and, to nurture them, the principal voices have been perfectly cast. As the frustrated male, George Clooney is all roguish bluster and calculated charm, keen to bust out of that corduroy and rediscover "where his wild things are." As the grounded female, Meryl Streep is the vocal embodiment of maturity, leaving the slyness to her prevaricating man and keeping the wisdom quietly to herself. Well, mainly to herself. Once, when the going gets especially tough, she reveals with a candour both sweet and fatalistic: "I love you, but I shouldn't have married you." Only Anderson would stick such a heart-stopping line into a stop-action cartoon.

As for that tough going, it at least will be familiar to Dahl fans. Vowing to pull off "one last big job," Mr. Fox angers a trio of alliterative meanies, the farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who keep upping their retaliatory ante from shotguns to backhoes to dynamite. (The brutish humans here all have British accents, while the cornered animals speak American - make of that what you will.) Anyway, with a cinematic nod to The Great Escape , the chase is on as the foxes and other assorted critters tunnel down to escape the looming danger, learning en route that an appreciation of their separate skills will promote their collective survival.

At this point, though, the chase stalls a bit and so does the film. Even the narrative filler starts to thin out. For instance, the script saddles Mr. Fox with a klutzy son (Jason Schwartzman), who in turn harbours a jealous resentment of his more physically gifted cousin (Eric Anderson). These additions work well at the outset. A curiously diffident overachiever, the cousin is a quintessential Anderson figure, and gives rise to a quintessential Anderson shot - the two rival kids, late at night, impassively watching a toy train clattering around its endlessly vicious circles. But by now, the son's jealousy has been resolved, as has the father's frustration, leaving the plot to plod towards happy-ending territory - a place that suits the original story just fine but seems ill at ease in this quirkier version.

That's not to deny the fun in the journey, or Anderson's own impeccable larceny in remaking Dahl in the director's image, complete with his trademark array of slow tracking shots and symmetrical frames. Watch in particular for an eerie tableau that, as the underground kingdom settles peacefully in, appears startlingly above and out of the void: an isolated wolf silhouetted black against a snowy vista, so uncompromisingly wild yet so dreadfully alone. Fantastic.

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