Skipping this review? "The cuss you are!," says Chief Justice Michael Stailey.
Our review of Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published February 14th, 2014, is also available.
Dig the life fantastic.
If nothing else, director Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) makes movies unlike any other filmmaker. You can expect to be surprised, challenged, and taken places you've never been, let alone imagined. The same holds true for Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first foray into stop-motion animation, and hopefully not his last.
Facts of the Case
You can attempt to domesticate wild animals, put them in human environments, dress them in clothes, and expect them to behave as humans do, but their inherent nature remains as primal as their species. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a sly, fast talking thief; the best at what he does…or did. Having settled down with a wife (Meryl Streep) and son (Jason Schwartzman), he's set aside his thieving ways to become a respected newspaper columnist in the woodland community. He's relatively happy as a family man, and yet his true self lies just below the surface, scratching for attention. Moving into a new home in a new neighborhood overlooking three of the country's biggest farms, the temptation is just too great. With his new partner in crime, handyman Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), the two set off to rob the three farmers blind, unknowingly setting off a chain of events that may just destroy the homes and lives of all their friends and neighbors…that is, unless Foxy pull his fat out of the fire before it's cooked.
Eccentric is a word that often comes to mind when thinking of Wes Anderson. The Houston-born storyteller continues to craft some of the most unusually compelling films. He is to modern American cinema what Federico Fellini was mid-twentieth century Italian film. They share a similar joie de vivre, a unique eye for larger than life characters, and indelible imagery. How many other directors adapting a children's book would take up residence in the author's home, pour over original manuscripts and journals for inspiration, act out every performance as live-action reference for his animators, and go to painstaking lengths to recreate the most minute elements of this man's life? Only one.
I suppose when the author in question is Roald Dahl—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach—there's a certain reverence to uphold. But of all the Dahl adaptations to date, this is the most label defying; filtering all of Anderson's well-defined and oft-analyzed storytelling quirks through a well known English story and projecting them onto a completely original world. Marketed as a lighthearted children's film, Fantastic Mr. Fox is anything but. The kids might like the puppets and the Burl Ives-inspired music, but the story and its subtext flies miles over their heads. It's a tale of getting what we so greatly desire at an unforeseen cost (to yourself and others) and being forced to clean up the resulting mess.
At its core, like most Anderson films, we have an unusual family—an unfulfilled husband entering a mid-life crisis, a son already desperate for his parent's approval, and a wife who paints landscapes of thunderstorms. Together they have a nice life but are left wanting more. Enter a visiting cousin (Eric Anderson) who exemplifies everything the son wants to be, and a surrogate brother/best friend in the form of a somewhat dimwitted handyman who provides Foxy with an accomplice he's been without since getting married and "retiring." Together, these catalysts ignite a firestorm of joyous achievements and crushing defeats, each a beauty to behold through Anderson's eyes at a pace most movie audiences are not used to traveling.
Anderson is a director who savors moments, even when they aren't the ones you might expect. This has a lot to do with the emotion of the film, thanks in large part to his co-writer, friend, and colleague Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), whose own sensibilities and view on life enhances the uniqueness of this experience. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox for the first time, you're taken aback, almost distracted by the world we've been dropped into. A color palate devoid of blues and greens, everything glows with the warmth of an Indian Summer, the crunch of autumn leaves, and the sweet smell of hot apple cider. The characters stilted 12 frame per second movements are made all the more obvious by a genre that normally glides by at 24 frames per second, offering us everything from intimate close-ups to birds-eye chase sequences. The artistry of the animators and the painstaking detail of the set designers create a hyper-realism unlike anything we've seen before.
For a film of decidedly British flavor (think Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit), having protagonists with extremely American sensibilities makes their conflict with the villainous farmers (voiced by British actors Michael Gambon, Robin Hurlstone, and Hugo Guinness) feel all the more divisive. George Clooney embodies the wily charm and endearing confidence of Foxy. Meryl Streep is once again almost unrecognizable, slipping easily into the subtle yet determined skin of Mrs. Fox. By casting Anderson stalwart Jason Schwartzman as their son Ash, and Anderson's own brother Eric as their do-no-wrong nephew Kristofferson, all of the delicious subtext comes bubbling to the surface. The audience's window to this world is captured beautifully by screenwriter Wally Wolodarsky (Monsters vs. Aliens) as the engagingly dense Kiley, and Bill Murray once again gets to play in Anderson's world courtesy of the practically stuffy Badger. And Willem Dafoe gets a brief but glorious role as Foxy's karate mastering arch-nemesis Rat. What impresses me most about the voice cast is that many of them were recorded as a group on location at a farmhouse in Connecticut, where Anderson took them into various rooms of the house, out in the barn, and deep into the field to capture their performances. And I thought Pixar was innovative.
Presented in 1.85:1 AVC, every rich detail of this world is on display in 1080p crystal clarity. You can probably view the film three or four times and still observe some previously undetected nuance. It's literally steeped in design excellences, from the frayed edges of the costumes and flittering wisps of fur (which age and lose color over time), to the knots in the wood and product labels on the grocery store shelves. Lit and shot like a feature film, you feel each emotional undertone as clearly as you hear every ambient environmental sound. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is outstanding, exhibiting a stronger sense of balance between dialogue and musical underscore than we've heard from other recent theatrical releases. Stepping into the shoes of Anderson's primary composing parter, Mark Mothersbaugh, is Alexandre Desplat whose riding a hot hand of high profile projects (The Ghost Writer, Julie and Julia, Coco Before Chanel). Drawing inspiration from a collection of Burl Ives children's songs, Desplat takes us on a whimsical journey every bit as enjoyable as the film itself. If you're not careful, his themes will worm their way into your brain and bounce around for quite some time.
The one downside to this release is a seemingly deficient collection of bonus materials:
• Making Mr. Fox Fantastic (45 min)—Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, Felicity Dahl, and various members of the production team take us behind-the-scenes for a look at the mind-blowing amount of dedication and work it took to create this beautifully impressive world. These can be viewed individually or as a single program. In either case, it impresses upon us just how well thought out and executed this project was.
• Fantastic Mr. Fox: The World of Roald Dahl (3 min)—Felicity and Wes discuss the time he spent living at Gipsy House with the Dahl family developing the script.
• A Beginners Guide to Whack-Bat (2 min)—An old-school training film teaching the ins and out of this creatively complex game.
• Theatrical Trailer
• DVD Copy
• Digital Copy
Fantastic Mr. Fox is another impressive entry in the Wes Anderson catalog, one whose enjoyment and appreciation may very well age like a fine wine. First-time viewings may leave some more perplexed than satisfied, but it certainly leaves an indelible impression.
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