Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

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.

First published in Businessworld, 12.10.09


Dino said...

Ahh, Fantastic mr. Fox. I saw this on an empty theater in Glorietta, I am surprised it is still playing as of this moment. Really sad. But not surprising. It had a horrible trailer, it was not promoted as other indie features, and it had dialogues that aren't really for children.

"In terms of animation features it's lovely, even perhaps brilliant, but not great."

I will have to disagree with that one. If there was one thing that left my jaw hanging was how awesome the details were. Stop-mo's pain in the ass enough with plasticine (Coraline) and clay (Chicken Run), how much more if you have to move the puppets with fur...without the use of CG as Coraline and Nightmare before X'mas did. For a time, I forgot that those were puppet animals/humans. Particularly commendable was the scene where Ash comforted his over-achieving cousin by playing with the toy train in the bedtime scene. I think it was meant to be crude to achieve a storybook effect and to accommodate Wes' style of retro feel. Now I will have to get its Dvd to scrutinize it further.
If one saw Avatar 3D before this (like I did), the animation does really feel underwhelming. It's like watching NBA then switch the channel to PBA.
I also have to commend Wes for the brilliant script. Sure, the Brits are protesting right now for its rubbish adaptation, but I will tell to their faces, screw the book, I like the film better. The only time I liked the film version than original source was the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Wes was able to justify Mr. Fox's stealing ways, which Dahl failed to do. Worth noting was the wolf scene towards the end.
The film ain't perfect. For one, it suffers from poor editing and at times predictable (like the scenes with the beagle) and several characters were poorly developed, like Rat, Petey, Agnes, etc. but overall, it's satisfying. > than Up and Coraline but < than Where the Wild things Are.

Noel Vera said...

Fur is fine, but I love the look of Coraline, its creepy atmosphere (Fox had many things, did not have much creep). And between the look of an incredibly detailed but still nevertheless dioramic camera and one that flows all over the place, I prefer the latter.

Not a fan of Lord of the Rings (too linear) or the movie (too literal).

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Really liked this one (and have been an Anderson fan for a while); I like that it's a story about a fox family, yet it's not entirely too hard to relate with everything given that, like what you usually see in Anderson's movies, the characterization always evokes some kind of nostalgia given that you KNEW people like Anderson's characters (which are actually based on people he knew)... but then put into Anderson's bizarre worlds, where 20-something year olds have fun planning robberies like 10-year-olds, where high school kids stage elaborate stage versions of the story of FRANK SERPICO or where Bill Murray single-handedly rescues his ship's crew from multi-ethnic Asian pirates.

I think that, even though there isn't necessarily a practical application of Anderson's films outside of entertainment, it's entertainment that is quirky and intelligent enough to warrant going back to again and again.

Essentially, Anderson doesn't make a disposable product and I appreciate it.

Also, I was quite fond of the animation in this one; it might not be "cutting-edge", but it has enough personality to make it distinguishable: if you've seen anything out of STUDIO 4C (or, specifically, Masaaki Yuasa's work), they don't have the "best" looking art, but they make a product and animation with a lot of character, I feel (which is probably why they're highly appreciated by all the animation otaku).

(funnily, Miyazaki, during his UC BERKELEY talk that I went to, talked about how he ordered his art director for PONYO to "get childish" with the backgrounds... PONYO'S BGs don't have the sharp hyper detail that I remember from stuff like HOWL'S and SPIRITED AWAY, yet they have easily been some of my favorites from a Miyazaki movie)

That's not to say that Anderson doesn't have any tricks up his sleeve with regards to the animation: I was quite fond of the various tracking shots he would use here and there.

As for the movie itself, what I really liked about it is that it was essentially a story about a fox dealing with a midlife crisis (Anderson was kinda enough to translate the passage of time in human years)...

In his later years, Mr. Fox is delegated to a job writing a column [that no one reads] for a newspaper (why animals would have newspapers, who knows?)... he's searching for something more in life (and even wants to move into a tree, despite the bad economy... clever), so he gives stealing another go in order to feel alive again, despite the inevitable consequences this will have on the people around him.

So, does he live a peaceful life like a schnook? Or does he live a dangerous life where he feels like somebody (to live life how he was meant to live it: like a "wild animal")?

It's a hard choice... especially for a wild animal.

(Amusingly, the conundrum of the midlife crisis is what I also really liked about Naoki Urasawa's 20th Centery Boys manga: it's a story about a group of people trying to save the world... but it's also about a man growing up and realizing that his best years have passed him by and how he turned out to be a loser... yet he now finds himself in a fantastical position where he's tasked with saving the world, despite the general ineptness of everyone in his group)

Which reminds me, Noel:

Have you been watching MONSTER on SCYFY?

It's really awesome; it's like MASTER KEATON this comparison isn't too out there since the parties involved did both shows and original stories), but with an on-going plot about a doctor who saves the life of a child who turns out to be a serial killer.

But, yeah... really worth watching; the DVDs are out now too, so you might be able to rent the first set if you weren't able to catch it on TV.

Anyway, yeah, good read on Fox; are you gonna go see James Cameron's new movie?

(hey... it'll be fun... and will have action sequences that are actually staged well)

Noel Vera said...

Ever took a close look at Starry Night at the MOMA? Van Gogh doesn't bother filling in every inch of his canvas either.

The childlike backgrounds in Ponyo have the effect of giving the film more spontaneity, a more casual feel, as if the backgrounds were being scribbled into place only moments before the camera turned to their direction. A very Van Gogh feel, I think.

Haven't seen Monster--didn't you recommend this one time? Mean to check em out, never have the chance. I enjoyed Death Note, for the record--but you probably think that's old stuff.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Interesting comparison; I'm looking at the picture right now and I think I remember the waves in PONYO making those kind of shapes.

Yeah, the backgrounds were totally brimming with character in that movie; it was a very pleasing choice to have that kinda "painterly" thing going on or whatever.

Death Note was a lot of fun; the ending was spectacularly overblown and I was pleased that Tetsuro Araki made productive use of such a small space in a warehouse for the finale (which is likely a consequence of how it was used in the original manga [that I've not read], but it's nice to see it convincingly timed and staged in animation... in fact, Death Note had several really fun set pieces); Araki did another show recently called "Kurozuka" and it was strangely experimental compared Death Note, which I found interesting.

(and Araki also did an interesting arc for the AOI BUNGAKU anime series about a bandit in the woods who falls in love with a woman from the city [and subsequently kills his several other wives in order to marry this city girl]; "BLUE LITERATURE" (AOI BUNGAKU) is essentially Madhouse's top talent adapting famous Japanese stories into animation... it's a REALLY good show)

That said, yeah, try catching MONSTER on Scyfy sometime (mondays at 11PM... but then I actually DVR the show); it's a really cool show and has that nice convincingly mature flavor that Keaton had.

Of interesting note is that Masayuki Kojima tends to actually use staff from GHIBLI for his productions at Madhouse: for example, Master Keaton had 2 episodes done by Kitaro Kosaka (who has been an animation director for some of Miyazaki's movies): the one about the French wine from WWII and the one about the old lady from Japan searching an old British acquaintance... probably some of the very best content in the series, I felt; overall, Kosaka seems like a fairly accomplished storyteller himself: I loved his NSAU movies.

Anyway, yeah, MONSTER is mainly what I'm talking about as it's very ambitious production (74 episodes with rather tight quality control via Kojima's ability to keep it together); it's very likely that TV anime will never see something like this again (as Kojima has now moved into feature film production; his recent PIANO FOREST movie was really great)

Among other things, what makes MONSTER interesting is seeing a Japanese anime grounded in a contemporary German setting (like the 1990s)...

Noel Vera said...

Netflix finally has Monster. 3 discs, of volume one. Is that the entire series, or only part 1?

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Yeah, the first 3 discs is actually only the first 15 episodes (it's 74 episodes long... pretty long series); while it is a long show, there's actually is a lot of standalone content...

Anyway, yeah, check it out whenever you have time; if you watch any TV anime in the foreseeable future, this should definitely be one of the first things you check out.

Anonymous said...

First af all I believe that Wes got the real talent.
I don't like the kind of "take the money" movies like Avatar or Lord of the rings. I had a different taste about what a movie is and I hate the "hype".
Coraline was very good.Here in Greece we don't even know about Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr.Fox". The solution of course is the dvd release.
I' m waiting for my Philipino film.
Finally I choosed "Beast of the Yellow Night". I think this director- Eddie Romero - it's for my taste.

Noel Vera said...

I always said Lord of the Rings was done about thirty years ago, for a far smaller budget, by John Boorman. It's called 'Excalibur.'

My favorite Eddie Romero (actually the only one I liked) is Agila--not available on DVD, far as I know, a pity.

If you like horror, check out the films by Gerardo de Leon afterwards. Two vampire films I'd recommend are Blood is the Color of the Night and Whisper to the Wind