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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

* * * *

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman

Fantastic Mr. Fox so perfectly exemplifies Wes Anderson's storytelling and visual style that it's amazing that it took him 5 films to get there. Adapted from the children's book by Roald Dahl, the film allows Anderson to indulge in both the homemade aesthetic that typically informs his work as well as the thematic concern over relationships between sons and father (or father figures) which comes up time and again in his films. Funny, charming, and beautifully rendered, Fantastic Mr. Fox is easily one of Anderson's best films - and I say that as someone whose feelings about pretty much all of his films are positive.

The Foxes, Mr. (George Clooney) and Mrs. (Meryl Streep), are a happy, adventurous couple who, as the film opens, are on a raid when they trigger a fox trap and end up caged. As they work on their escape, Mrs. Fox reveals that she's pregnant and asks Mr. Fox to find a safer line of work for the sake of their growing family. Though it goes against his nature, Mr. Fox agrees and when the film catches up with them two years (or twelve fox years) later, he's working as a newspaper columnist and he and Mrs. Fox are living in a hole with their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Mr. Fox begins looking for a better home for the family and finds it in the base of a tree, though his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), warns him that the tree is in a dangerous area due to its proximity to Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon), a trio of farmers. Fox doesn't heed the warning and soon enough the Foxes have moved in, along with Mrs. Fox's nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), whose father is ill with pneumonia and whose presence ignites Ash's jealousy once Mr. Fox starts to take a shine to him. Things in the Fox household are tense, and become all the more so once Mr. Fox secretly returns to his raiding ways and ends up getting his tail shot off by the farmers, who are now out to kill him and his family.

The Foxes escape by tunneling underground, but they can't stay there forever. While the farmers wait at the mouth of the tunnel in order to ambush the animals when they inevitably need to come looking for food, Fox leads an expedition to raid the three farms, cleaning out their stores and returning to the tunnels to feast with all the other animals who have been forced underground as a result of the farmers destroying their homes. Meanwhile, Ash and Kristofferson have gone on a raid of their own in the hopes of regaining possession of Fox's tail and Kristofferson ends up being captured in the process. After being flooded out of the tunnel by the farmers, learning that the farmers intend to use Kristofferson as bait to lure him into a trap, and having learned where Kristofferson is being held from Rat (Willem Dafoe), Bean's security guard, Fox and the others come up with a plan to get the best of the farmers and save their comrade.

Anderson has always been a filmmaker notable for his attention to detail in terms of the very specific look of his films, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is arguably the best example of his visual aesthetic. It is meticulously put together and brought to life through stop-motion animation and the result is a visual feast. In addition to its superficial delights, the film also has great energy and a great story, particularly in terms of the way that it explores the relationship between Ash and his father. Ash wants so badly to impress his father and make him proud but just can't seem to get on the radar because the elder Fox has so much other stuff going on. It isn't until Fox and Ash have a heart-to-heart, with Fox telling the story of what happened when he learned that Mrs. Fox was pregnant, and Fox explicitly states that Ash is exactly the son he wants, that Ash finally understands that he does matter and his relationship with his father (as well as his relationship with Kristofferson, whom he no longer views as competition) is repaired. The voicework in the film is universally great, but Schwartzman's work is particularly so, tapping into Ash's anxieties and giving the film an emotional grounding that helps give the story some resonance.

With a clever script, beautiful animation, and great voicework by the cast, Fantastic Mr. Fox surely qualifies as one of the best animated feature films of the last decade. It was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar for 2009, ultimately losing to Up (I would say that it was a victim of bad timing, but had it come out a year earlier it would have been up against Wall-E and had it come out a year later it would have been up against Toy Story 3) but winning a slew of other awards throughout that awards season (most of them for screenplay). While it only came out 5 years ago, I think it's safe to say that it's going to age well, as it still feels fresh when watched (or re-watched) now. If you haven't yet had the pleasure of Fantastic Mr. Fox, waste no more time: it truly is fantastic.


Wendell Ottley said...

It is indeed a fantastic film. And you're right it perfectly sums up everything Anderson is about. Great review.

Norma Desmond said...

Thanks. Stop-motion is such a perfect medium for Anderson, I'm shocked that he hasn't made another feature in the same format.