Animated, but with teeth
Who would have thought children's literature maverick Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) and filmmaking oddball Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Rushmore (1998) would make such an inspired pairing? Who would have thought the textured anachronism of stop-motion animation would suit the timeless, set-in-amber charm of Anderson's films?
Dahl's book was at heart a meaty survival tale of a fox struggling to evade the clutches of three farmers (Boggis, Bunce, and Bean). At one point his tail is shot off; at another he digs into the farmers' various storerooms and steals their chickens and cider. Anderson tacks on to this fairly straightforward story an introductory first act that shows Mr. and Mrs. Fox (George Clooney and Meryl Streep, respectively) trapped in a steel cage thanks to a miscalculation on the part of Mr. Fox--the perfect time, of course, for Mrs. Fox to reveal that she happens to be pregnant. Mr. Fox makes a vow to his wife that he will give up his criminal career, a vow that in effect changes the tone of the story--in Anderson's film, Mr. Fox doesn't steal out of necessity, but out of choice; the consequences that follow fall more catastrophically on his head than even in Dahl's book.
The fox kits are combined into a single boy named Ash (Jason Schwartzman) with father issues (unusual in foxes, who produce in litters, but not at all unusual with Anderson, who is all about difficult relationships with distant or absent fathers). The neighbors are spikier, more distinctly drawn--they include a hilarious turn by Bill Murray as a cantankerous (but are there any other kind?) badger, and Italian-American chef Mario Batali (in his film debut, complete with orange neckerchief) in the tiny role of Rabbit.
The action turns less on survival and more on action and consequences, on following one's own agenda with self-regarding obsessiveness--Fox can't resist yet another chicken or bottle of cider, Ash can't stop trying to prove himself to his father, Bean can't help trying to exact revenge for the theft of his cider, Bean's security guard Rat (Willem Dafoe) can't avoid following his macho imperative and challenging Mr. Fox, or flirting with Mrs. Fox. At the same time there is an acceptance of Fox's foibles--of, in fact, everyone's foibles--implicit in the film's easygoing tone, its unpredictable pacing, its autumnal color palette all burgundy red and deep gold and coal-fire orange, successfully pulled off because Anderson has dealt with colors throughout his career (a trait of his that I thought reached its apotheosis with The Darjeeling Limited (2007)--imagine Anderson dabbling in the incomparable colors of India! Then, of course, this picture came along).
The film revels in its oddness--Anderson intentionally shot the film at a rate of 12 frames per second instead of the conventional, smoother-moving 24 frames a second to accentuate the jerkiness of the animation, point up the handmade (as opposed to digital) nature of the enterprise. Some moments--Mr. Fox gobbling down his dinner comes to mind--are like a kind of Brit-lit transposition of the scatological comic shorts of Jan Svankmajer. To the imagery Anderson adds an equally eclectic music score, everything from The Beach Boys to The Rolling Stones to several songs by Burt Ives--not exactly famous, unless you were old enough to grow up listening to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (never saw the show myself, but the tune is, of course, hauntingly familiar).
In terms of animation features it's lovely, even perhaps brilliant, but not great. It doesn't have the breathtaking beauty of the Studio Ghibli films (of which Ponyo is the latest example), nor the philosophical density of Mamoru Oshii's (The Sky Crawlers (2008), Ghost in the Shell (1995)); compared to, say, Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2009) the animation feels--well, Anderson may have painted himself in a corner when he made his picture so self-consciously crude (I'm thinking of the final shot in Selick's film, where the camera pulls back from the gardens, over the house, past the front yard--in effect summarizing the entire story in a single sinuous move). Anderson, after all, is something of a neophyte to animation (despite the extensive use of the same in his The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)), and this is the first time he's tried to tell a ninety minute story completely through the medium.
One hesitates to compare Dahl to Gaiman--this isn't Dahl's best work, it lacks the imaginative vigor of his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or its even more baroque sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and one guesses that Anderson chose this as being lightweight enough to allow insertion of his own considerable changes (aside from the fact, of course, that Anderson is a longtime fan of Dahl--Mr. Fox's study is a replica of Dahl's writing shed). Gaiman and Dahl do share a taste for the grotesque, and while Gaiman might have a more sophisticated grasp of different mythologies (or at least exhibits a more sophisticated grasp), Dahl has a straightforward, no-nonsense storytelling sensibility that just asks to be translated to film.
It's difficult to know what to make of Wes Anderson. His films feel like ships in a bottle, like painstakingly designed and carved, hermetically sealed worlds complete with sea and sky, all sitting inside some bourbon cistern. Or like Charles Foster Kane's fabled snow ball with the little house forever trapped in the center of a swirling snowstorm. They're like elaborate curios with a definite appeal to them, they depict scenes of fragile melancholy that may force you to linger, maybe even draw your gaze back once or twice.
Other than that--little outside application, zero practicality. They're lovely, but what are they for? How much they might appeal to you may depend on whether or not you believe a film should have practical application, perhaps actually say something, or if you believe there's room in one's pantheon for ingrown, inward-looking, beautifully intricate little curios like these. Fantastic Mr. Fox has all the hallmarks (and drawbacks, if you like) of an Anderson work, only accentuated by the stop-motion animation. An appropriately fantastic creation, it seems, from some brilliant, bent-over elf, whittling away in his little corner of some vast workshop.