Wednesday, December 09, 2009

512 - Fantastic Mr. Fox review

Who should I thank for this? There's Roald Dahl, the late author famed for his children's literature, who wrote the book on which this film is based. But then there's Wes Anderson, the droll, eccentric auteur who took Dahl's work and brought it to cinematic life with joy and affection, clever humor. Like great children's films do, it dispenses glee to the kids as well as those who drove them to the theater and bought the tickets.

A tale told in gorgeously quirky stop-motion, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" follows the exploits of the titular animal, a family fox and professional chicken thief who gives up that line of work to become a newspaper columnist, apparently a much safer profession. But a desire to upgrade the homestead (a tree which makes Mr. Fox feel poor) leads him to return to the dangerous game of chicken snatching, one replete with bandit masks, an interesting apparel choice seeing as the animal society doesn't frown upon the profession. Mr. Fox is voiced by George Clooney, the perfectly logical choice seeing as his voice is instantly recognizable as a mark of cinematic suaveness and charming levity. The farms are owned by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, three mean humans with a serious disinterest in seeing their profits ebbed by animal thieves, leading to an all out war declared on the area's wildlife.

Anderson, the director of the classic “Rushmore” and minor classic “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” infuses the story with equal parts heart and wit, playing gently with conventions even as he lovingly adheres to them. The inspired flourishes are in healthy supply; my favorite was that when the characters speak a line of dialogue that would normally contain a swear word, they replace the word with "cuss." "Like cuss you will," they say it first, eventually creating my favorite expression of the year, "clustercuss." Mr. Fox patronizes the law firm of Beaver, Beaver, and Badger, one of whom is voiced by Anderson staple Bill Murray.

One could call Anderson a showoff (and many do), but with "Fantastic Mr. Fox" he demonstrates an enormous capacity for storytelling that's gracious and affectionate to its characters. Even as it has an edge, there's not a trace of malice present, and even as the conclusion hits an exciting crescendo, Anderson never loses focus on the Fox family dynamic, painting a portrait of a relatable clan with a feel for how discord can actually strengthen the ties that bind. Their struggles are more centered on realistic issues than most would expect from a family film; Mr. Fox, a typically Anderson-esque detached father, bemoans his advanced age (which we're pointedly and frequently reminded happens about six times as fast for foxes than for humans), while son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) feels marginalized by his athletic and popular cousin. Mr. Fox’s neighbors harbor understandable resentment towards him after their homes are flooded by the humans, and there's surprising tension when Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) confesses to Mr. that though she loves him, he's not husband material. By the time happy ending rolls out, the uplift feels earned rather than issued.

Even if it doesn't rise to the degree of Pixar's last two deeply touching and staggeringly beautiful masterpieces ("WALL-E" and "Up"), "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is superlative fare, funny, imaginative, and whimsically delightful. I can't say that you'll enjoy it, but I sure as cuss did.

4 out of 5

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