Monday, November 30, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (***)

Directed by Wes Anderson


Wes Anderson has never made a film I have disliked. He's been working since 1996's Bottle Rocket, and has made six films overall. Each film has been touched with the same flavor of detachment, smugness, and a golden ear for classic rock. Many film lovers have become perturbed by Anderson's seemingly stunted creativity, stating that all of his films have become to similar in style and theme. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, we are given Anderson's first stab at animated filmmaking, and many see it as Anderson's opportunity to outgrow the similar nature of all his films. But Anderson's got another trick up his sleeve.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a world-class chicken thief, but when Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) declares to him that she's pregnant with their first child, Fox decides to give up his dangerous lifestyle for something a little more practical. Two years later (twelve fox years), Fox has reinvented himself as a columnist for his local newspaper and has a teenage son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman). The Fox family lives comfortably in their foxhole, but Fox refuses to live in poverty. Despite the imploring of his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), Fox decides to move his family to an uptown tree.

Fox enjoys the prestige of his tree, and he's particularly happy when his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them for a while. Kristofferson is a world class athlete, practices yoga and meditation, and has all of the qualities that Fox needs in a son. Fox's love for Kristofferson only creates a bigger divide between him and Ash, who was unfortunately born without all of the gifts Fox and Kristofferson were blessed with. When Fox and his possum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) decide to re-enter the chicken-stealing business, he brings Kristofferson along for the ride, further enraging Ash.

Fox begins barking up the wrong tree, though, when he decides to steal from the three notorious farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who inspired this children's rhyme: "Boggis, Bunce, and Bean/ One fat, one short, one lean/ These horrible crooks/ So different in looks/ Were none the less equally mean". The three, particularly the cold-blooded Bean (Michael Gambon), plan furiously to kill the nefarious Fox. They use everything from bulldozers and dynamite, and before long, the entire animal society is threatened by the three men. With everyone looking to him for answers, Fox must find a way to outsmart smart these farmers once and for all.

The biggest trick that Wes Anderson pulls here is that he isn't pulling any tricks at all. There is nothing about Fantastic Mr. Fox that separates it from The Darjeeling Limited thematically or The Royal Tenenbaums stylistically--other than the animation, of course. It contains all of the dry, sardonic dialogue we've come to know from Anderson's films (he co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach), and while following the plot elements of the original novel by Roald Dahl pretty closely, there is really none of the essence that Dahl had in his book.

I don't know if Anderson is a fan of Roald Dahl (I know I am, but that's a story for another day), but he certainly isn't interested in recreating Dahl's vision. If anything, he's interested of telling Dahl's story in his own vision--which I'm sure will rub some people the wrong way. The biggest grenades that Anderson's critics usually lob is that he has not evolved his style, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is certainly an act of stubbornness in which Anderson so fully embraces the lackadaisical nature of his previous films. He's drawing a line in the sand here and we have to choose to follow along or just move on.

That said, it's a very quaint, funny movie. The dialogue runs sharp and ironic, and nothing ever seems out of place. It moves briskly, and has plenty of tension when it needs it. The characters of Ash and Kylie give the film its strongest laughs, while Kristofferson and Mrs. Fox give it some true heart. The food pillaging scenes are shot with great adventure in mind, and using his usual staple of British Invasion pop songs in the background, everything has an air of nostalgia and grooviness simultaneously. Essentially, you'll like this movie for the same reasons you liked every other Wes Anderson movie.

I said I've never disliked a Wes Anderson movie, and I stand by that statement. I will admit, though, that I probably enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox the least out of the six. It's a bit inconsequential in nature, and at times seems at odds with its own genre (children's films). There are moments of self-reflective mocking, pointing the finger at its own wholesome nature. The violent nature of the animals and "cuss words" are dealt with curiously. This film is the closest thing Anderson has ever come to an identity crisis. It must really mean something when you're least impressive film is not much worse than your most impressive. In Anderson's case, they've all been exceptional, so he's got that going for him.

No comments: