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Our review of Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-ray), published March 22nd, 2010, is also available.
Dig the life fantastic.
"How can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?"
Facts of the Case
Once upon a time, Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney, Michael Clayton and Meryl Streep, Adaptation) were professional chicken thieves, living on the run like a furry version of Bonnie and Clyde. These days, they lead a much quieter life. Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist, Mrs. Fox is an artist and they have a perpetually grumpy young son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore). Alas, Mr. Fox eventually begins to grow discontent with his peaceful existence, and begins plotting a complex, three-part heist that involves stealing a host of chickens from three merciless farmers named Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). The plan goes swimmingly at first, but things turn south when the farmers discover what Mr. Fox has been up to. The three men launch an all-out assault on the Fox family's underground home, imperiling a host of neighboring animals in the process. Will Mr. Fox find a way to save his friends and family?
I've always found it interesting that the directors of animated movies don't seem to get a whole lot of attention. While we generally think of Raging Bull as a Martin Scorsese film, Zero Dark Thirty as a Katherine Bigelow film and The Wild Bunch as a Sam Peckinpah film, we generally regard The Lion King as a Disney film and Shrek as a Dreamworks production. There's a reason for that, I suppose. Most of the time, an animation studio's overall artistic/commercial ambitions feel like the common thread in a group of animated movies. However, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the rare exception to the rule. Despite the fact that it employs anthropomorphic animals and stop-motion animation, it feels much closer to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums than to Beauty and the Beast or Kung Fu Panda. From start to finish, this is unquestionably a Wes Anderson film.
Yes, the staples of every Wes Anderson movie are present in Fantastic Mr. Fox: the impossibly organized visual design, the dry wit, the deadpan montages, the eclectic yet always spot-on soundtrack, the subdued soulfulness, the Bill Murray, the Jason Schwartzman, the Owen Wilson. However, there's something about the warmth and vitality of stop-motion animation that somehow makes this Anderson movie feel just a little bit more vibrant than the rest. That isn't intended as a criticism of his live-action work (which I adore), but it's easy to see why many who find much of Anderson's work off-putting have admitted to enjoying this effort quite a bit. The director hasn't compromised his voice at all, but uses the filter of stop-motion to permit his work to be seen in a slightly different light.
One of the things I love most about Fantastic Mr. Fox is that it's the rare children's movie that never treats its young audience with condescension. Yes, there are quite a few clever references and turns of phrase that will likely prove elusive for youngsters, but the basic story is simple enough to get a handle on and the vivid animation should prove thoroughly engaging for viewers of all ages. It's satisfying on a basic level, and will slowly but surely reveal greater rewards over time as its viewers grow older. An eight-year-old might leave their initial viewing puzzled by the meaning of the phrase, "comme ci comme ca," but that might also prove the inspiration required for them to learn something new. The film ensures that things are family-friendly by keeping the most violent moments offscreen and by cleverly employing the word "cuss" instead of actual profanities, but otherwise the tale is marked by a wise maturity atypical in mainstream animated films.
The voice cast is sublime. George Clooney is ideally cast as Mr. Fox, putting his velvety tones to good use during the title character's many speeches (a habit the film gently pokes fun at by having him deliver one of these speeches atop an actual soap box). Meryl Streep is warm and subtle as his loving-yet-suspicious wife, and Jason Schwartzman is just perfect as the sulky, insecure Ash. Other standouts include Willem Dafoe as a villainous rat, Michael Gambon as the film's nastiest human character, Bill Murray as a level-headed badger and Jarvis Cocker as a minor character who provides a memorably terrible song. The film doesn't opt for the increasingly common approach of making the characters look suspiciously like the actors voicing them, but everything seems just right, anyway. Clooney sounds exactly like one suspects a fox would sound if foxes spoke English.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection has received a beautiful 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that doesn't look much different from the fine transfer the film received in its more humble Blu-ray release from Fox. This is such a gorgeous flick, and you can see every little fingerprint on the beautifully-crafted animated characters. Detail is stunning throughout, colors are rich, depth is strong. I have no complaints whatsoever. The same goes for the strong DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which presents the dialogue, the excellent sound design, the songs and Alexandre Desplat's bouncy, flavorful score with clarity and strength. The track has a lot of aural subtleties to appreciate—crunching leaves, background arguments, musical complexities—and the track captures all of them admirably.
However, the real reason to upgrade to Criterion's release is the supplemental package. The original Blu-ray release was disappointingly thin in this department, but this new release is jam-packed with fascinating goodies. You get an audio commentary with Wes Anderson, a seven-part "The Making of Fantastic Mr. Fox" section, which offers all sorts of compelling, raw behind-the-scenes footage, a slicker but slightly less interesting collection of EPK-style publicity featurettes (32 minutes), an animatic feature that presents the entire film via storyboard (well worth your time, if you're a fan of the film's visual design), an hour-long documentary on Roald Dahl, an audio version of the original book (read by Dahl himself), a clever introduction to the film from Jarvis Cocker's animated character, a "Discussion and Analysis" featurette that offers colorful commentary from two young kids, a Sony commercial directed by Anderson, some animated awards speeches, a clip of Dahl showing off the tree near his home that inspired the story, some set photos, and two DVDs that contain the film itself and all of the special features in standard-def. More than enough here to justify a double-dip, I'd say. Oh, and let's not forget Criterion's usual booklet, which includes an essay from Erica Wagner, a piece on Dahl written by Anderson, and a comic book used within the film itself. Nifty!
When I first viewed it in the theatre, Fantastic Mr. Fox struck me as immensely charming but somewhat slight. However, over the past few years I've been drawn back to it on multiple occasions, and with each new watch it reveals itself to be deeper, funnier and more profound than I initially suspected. It's a near-flawless work from one of America's most distinctive directors. Highly recommended.
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