Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox Review

Fantastic Mr. Fox:
Directed by Wes Anderson
Released in 2009

Animation has always carried a stigma of only catering to a juvenile audience. From Saturday morning cartoons to Disney feature films, younger children seem to always be the only group of people meant to watch animated movies or TV shows. This thought process has changed, especially over the past 15 years, with the most consistent movie developer in the business, Pixar, and crude shows like South Park and Family Guy. It is very rare, however, to see a veteran of live-action cinema forgo flesh and blood and instead opt for a full-length animated film. In stop-motion, clay animation no less. Wes Anderson took the risk and it paid off with Fantastic Mr. Fox, one of the best films of the year that stands as great, mature entertainment while still being a fun time for the younger crowd.

Anderson, known for his films with plots centered around dysfunctional families, takes his trademark style and brings it to stop-motion animation. His quirks and acting regulars such as Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are all here yet he does not rest on his laurels for he innovates on a formula some were calling stale. There are no slow-motion, drawn-out scenes (or two, or three...) but everything that worked with him is still in place and improved upon. Fantastic Mr. Fox is Mr. Anderson's funniest movie yet, blending humorous character appearances with quality dialogue. For example, when trying to communicate with a lone wolf in the distance and after exhausting his skill in English and Latin (he names many animals in the film by their scientific name), Mr. Fox asks a wolf something in French and explains, "I'm asking him if he thinks he's in for a hard winter." This is the most accessible Anderson film yet, and anyone who does not typically like his work will appreciate this film while fans will downright adore it.

Based off the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, the story takes liberties with the source material which is no concern, especially considering Fantastic Mr. Fox is by no means a sacred, lofty title. The general premise is that Mr. Fox steals chickens, ducks, turkey, and hard cider from the three wealthy farmers of the area with his wife, Mrs. Fox, but then vows to stop when they barely escape a close encounter. Being the "wild animal" he is, he betrays this promise years later and starts stealing again, much to his wife and the farmers' dismay. The farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, put all their effort to capturing the fox and hold the family under siege while the animals work out a solution. It is a simple story and provides a very satisfying, uplifting conclusion.

The cast gives the characters human behavior behind each manufactured figure. George Clooney offers his smooth voice as the title character while Meryl Streep plays his wife. The two Oscar-winning actors have great chemistry as Mr. Fox serves as the adventurous type while his wife just wants to settle down in a life of safety. Their son, Ash, voiced by Jason Schwartzman, is the best character as he constantly scowls like a typical hormonal teenager while secretly wanting attention from his parents. The subject for Ash's jealousy is in his cousin Kristofferson who lives with the Fox family for awhile. He is everything that Ash is except better in some way: a better athlete, student, fighter, lover, etc. Played by Eric Chase Anderson, brother of Wes, Kristofferson is suave and likable: it is no wonder that only Ash has any problem with him. The legendary Bill Murray plays Badger, a lawyer, and Owen Wilson makes a short appearance as the coach giving the "simple" guidelines on how to play "Whackbat," the imaginary, head-spinning sport of the creatures. Willem Dafoe is sly as the dirty, dancing rat and Wallace Wolodarsky, another Anderson staple, plays the clueless, loyal assistant to Mr. Fox, Kylie. Finally, Michael Gambon, Dumbledore himself, lends his recognizable voice as the film's primary antagonist, Bean. The cast is well-rounded and excellent overall, with the old and new in Anderson's world united for his best creation yet.

As stellar as the voice talent is, the art style is where this film really shines. With figures from the U.K.-based puppet company Mackinnon and Saunders, everything has an organic look that gives each figure emotional weight while still preserving the rustic charm and humor that they all have. The fur on each of the puppet's faces rustle and quiver during close-ups while remaining static in others. Obviously, attention to such minute detail was not going to be paid to each, distant shot but this gives the film its welcome, quirky feel. A storybook aura definitely pervades the whole movie, with hand-drawn murals serving for most of the bucolic backdrops. Shots range from zoomed-in captures of facial expressions to scrolling, detached pans of the animals cavorting. This truly is an innovative, original film in many aspects and its direction and cinematography are the leading reasons why. A great soundtrack also accompanies the action with a few tracks by the Beach Boys as well as superb use of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" in a key scene. If there is a reason why Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best films of the year, then it is certainly its style and new approach to animation.

Like any great film, there is a message lying underneath. The correlation between humans and animals (we are all animals, technically, after all) serves as a concealed foundation for most of the action. The debonair Mr. Fox is as sophisticated as James Bond yet engulfs his food like the vicious creature he is. On the contrary, the three rich farmers rake in huge profits yet commit literally their entire lives to bringing down a measly fox while Bean's disgustingly ugly son shoves his face with food and watches the events unfold on TV. There is a look into the human psyche in this film, funnily enough, that is not only pro-nature but showcasing the stupidity in some and brilliance in others. Anyone can be a Mr. Fox if they know what matters most in their life, even if it takes a near-death experience to reveal it. Further reinforcing this human-animal comparison point is the constant switching of titles in each scene, sometimes listing how much time has passed in "fox years" opposite human years. Action moves faster in the fox world (about 2 human years equals 12 fox ones) and this motivates the animals to get the most out of their life instead of eating 12 chickens a day like fat old Boggis.

Fantastic Mr. Fox lives to its namesake and is truly fantastic. The stellar voice acting and art style combine to create a unique experience that is one of the better comedies of year while still being animated. Any age group will enjoy this film, though different ages will obviously get different experiences. Children will be fascinated by its looks and like the characters while the older set will laugh at most of the jokes and appreciate the care that has been placed on every detail. This film also has one of the best censored scripts ever, with every curse word replaced with "cuss." It seems gimmicky at first but its abundance makes it friendly for the younger crowd while giving enough hints to know what the animals are really saying. And if there is anything that this film is trying to get across, it is that we are all wild animals in the end.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

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