Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 7, 2010)
Director Wes Anderson adapts Roald Dahl for the world of stop-motion animation with 2009ís The Fantastic Mr. Fox. A fox named Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) makes his living as a bird thief. When he and his wife (Meryl Streep) get captured and she tells him sheís pregnant, he agrees to take on a less risky career.
We fast-forward 12 fox years to find Mr. Fox as a semi-struggling newspaper columnist with an adolescent son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Mr. Fox aspires to a better life outside of their hole, so he moves the family into a tree. He chooses this particular abode largely because it resides in the shadow of some nasty humans named Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). Mr. Fox aspires to relive the excitement of his earlier life, and he recruits his pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) to help. This sets up a war between the animals and the humans.
We also see issues connected to a visit from Foxís nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Ash is a bit of an odd kid and also small for his age, while Kristofferson is a good athlete and more of a charmer with the ladies. Because of this, Ash becomes resentful of his cousin and conflicts ensue.
I suspect that even if Fox completely stunk, itíd receive praise from a certain faction due to three factors: Anderson, Dahl, and a quirky, challenging form of animation. This is basically animation ala the indie world, for better or for worse.
While Iíve been perfectly happy with mainstream animation, I think Fox creates a nice niche for itself. Does Anderson do anything to make the film significantly different from work other studios could produce? No, not really.
The style of animation is the most unusual factor here, as stop-motion material rarely makes an appearance these days. Thatís no surprise, as stop-motion is a difficult, time-consuming medium. Iím not sure this style gives the film any kind of heft or power that would be absent in a more traditional piece of cell or CG animation, but it creates something that stands out from the crowd.
Only one negative comes with stop-motion animation: the style occasionally threatens to distract from the story and characters. At times I paid so much attention to the techniques at work that I almost forgot about the movie itself. Thatís not a constant Ė or even frequent Ė problem, and it might just be one that only I encounter, but it was an issue.
The quality of the animation was quite good. The main concern stems from the massive amount of fur on display, as the stop-motion techniques ensure that it moves around a lot. This means that even when a character stands still, his or her hair tends to ruffle and shift. Other objects do the same, but the fur demonstrates the most widespread example of this.
I hesitate to call this an actual problem, though, because apparently Anderson did nothing to fix it. In the discís documentary, he mentions that he loved the sight of the shifting fur in the original King Kong, so itís clear he didnít want to use any kind of post-production method to change it.
And even though the drifting hair distracts me, Iím fine with that. I understand Andersonís preference for a more organic feel, even one that shows warts. Too much clean-up mightíve eradicated some of the formatís basic charms.
The story, characters and performances are strong enough to overcome potential technical concerns anyway. At its heart, one could view Fox as an environmental tale since it involves the battle between nature and the humans.
While you could do that, I suspect you shouldnít, as itíd turn a fun film into something less engaging. I donít want to say that Fox should be taken as a piece of fluff, but I donít get the impression it really aspired to a great deal of social commentary. Those elements lurk, but the film fares best when taken as a comedic romp.
And itís a heck of a good romp at that. The tale starts a little slowly, perhaps because it takes us a while to buy into the stop-motion animation and the filmís universe. Once we do so, though, we find a slew of engaging characters and situations that become more and more dynamic as the movie progresses.
It doesnít hurt that the flick boasts a world-class cast. Clooney doesnít exactly break a sweat as the lead character, a furry variation on Danny Ocean. But hey, Cary Grant made a career based on similar roles, so why shouldnít Clooney continue to do what he does best? Heís perfect as Mr. Fox, and the remainder of the actors Ė a group that also includes folks like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson Ė give us fun work as well.
ďFunĒ seems to be my go-to word in this review, and itís the one that best describes the charming Fox. Yes, the film has some themes and character depth; itís not a shallow romp with nothing else to it. But at its heart, itís just a great deal of fun.