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Too Twee or Not Too Twee? Wes Andersonís Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Stop Smiling Review

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
20th Century Fox


Reviewed by Sarah Silver

Wes Anderson’s instantly recognizable storybook manner of filmmaking — characters smack dab in the middle of symmetrical frames, crowded by descriptive personal paraphernalia — owes much to the traditionally clear, organized style of children’s literature and comic books. Libraries are revered in both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, the latter going so far as to open with a bird’s-eye view of an eponymous book being stamped and checked out to an invisible book-lover. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novella, begins by paying homage to nearly every Disney children’s book adaptation from Snow White to The Jungle Book to Robin Hood: a stop-motion animated book opens, reminding us to respect the written word behind the story to come.

Anderson’s affinity for Fox makes sense, since the anti-hero is a rapscallion struggling to balance animal instincts with paternal responsibilities — an apt description of the typical Andersonian father figure (Herman Blume, Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou) cracking under the pressure of midlife crisis. Mr. Fox, a.k.a. Foxy, is fed up with his family’s underground dwelling and, against the advice of his lawyer (a badger), he acts on his itch to move his family into a tree perilously close to the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who have a variety of specialties (chickens, ducks, and turkeys and cider, respectively) and a shared hatred of thieving foxes. Foxy, an unstoppable bandit in his youth, can’t seem to get thieving off his mind, so he enlists his friend Kylie the Opossum (the “o” is pronounced) to undertake with him one last act of grand larceny, which turns out, in fact, to be threefold: steal the prized goods of first Boggis, then Bunce, then Bean.

Although a stop-motion animation film may seem at first blush like strange new territory for Anderson, a film that allows the nit-picking director to micromanage everything — from the needles on which the characters’ sweaters are knit (hand-whittled ones) to how often they blink (surprisingly infrequently by stop-motion standards) — is actually the next logical step in his career. While his earlier films already prove too much for Anderson’s critics, who accuse him of solipsism and self-indulgence, they are nothing if not impressive proof of the degree to which an auteur can have control over every aspect of his films, to a degree on par with Hitchcock and Tati. But, for all their exacting direction, neither of those artists ever oversaw the creation, out of wire and plasticine, of his entire cast, and then went on to have final approval of each character’s every facial expression.  

Fox, its every frame stuffed to the gills with knick-knacks and accoutrements, often overwhelms with too much visual information. While Rushmore and Tenenbaums may have the precise aesthetic of an Hergé comic, there is still room to breathe, at least in the whimsy of the actors’ gestures, which Anderson can inform on set and edit in post production, but which, fundamentally, have to come from somewhere inside the performer. With Fox, there is a bit too much Anderson present in every detail, right down to the cut and fabric of Foxy’s suit, which was tailor-made to match one of the director’s favorites from his wardrobe. There is something slightly off about these creatures, walking upright, practically on tip-toe, anthropomorphized to an extreme degree except when eating or digging, actions that allow them to release their inner-beast. Their bristling fur, made from real animal hides, is in constant motion and gives us the unsettling sense that these are taxidermed animals acting out a teleplay. The look is derivative of the work of stop-motion pioneer Ladislas Starevich, whose Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox) Anderson has acknowledged as the single biggest influence on this film’s appearance. Perpetually paying homage, Anderson also gives a nod to that dashing pair of foxes, Robin Hood and Maid Marion, from Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood, when a song from that film’s soundtrack plays during an interaction between Mr. and Mrs. Fox.

As with Spike Jonze’s recent Where the Wild Things Are, the movements of these characters were inspired by the actors who voiced them. Thus, Foxy (voiced by George Clooney) is blandly debonair, and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) is reasonable and distinguished. With eyes closed, the voices (including standbys Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson) and their deadpan deliveries would lead one to believe they were watching any other Wes Anderson movie. Besides Willem Dafoe as the slinky Rat (whose movements are by far the most specific of any character), the most standout performances come from actors we don’t know as actors: writer/producer Wally Wolodarsky shines as Kylie the Opossum, and behind-the-behind-the-scenes Anderson sibling Eric (known for his storyboards and making-of documentaries) is heartbreaking as Kristofferson, the over-achieving and misunderstood Fox cousin.

A plethora of little contrivances, such as the titles that announce how much time has elapsed in both human and fox time, and the use of the generic, self-aware word “cuss” every time a curse word would normally be used (“The cuss you are!”), pander to that “fun for kids and clever enough for adults” market that is currently bloated with Pixar movies. But the old adage about trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one isn’t necessarily true. There are legions who will be as tickled by this movie as Wes Anderson himself, who must be in awe of how close this meticulously constructed fantasy comes to the original vision in his head. The rest of us will acknowledge the achievement, and wait to see if he’ll ever just make a genre picture.

 

 

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