Fantastic Mr. Fox

The good news. Fantastic Mr. Fox is so visually stunning that the film grabs you in breathless amazement, except for those times when your ears tune in to the sophisticated, sometimes hilarious dialogue and you laugh out loud. The music is totally integrated into the story as if it were the personality of a narrator. The voices of well-known A-list actors are impressively perfect, giving a sense of welcome gravitas that is usually missing in animated films.

Fans of director Wes Anderson (Darjeeling Limited) will love the film for his signature take on the quirky ups and downs of family life. Artists and animation fans will appreciate the exquisite detail that is obvious in every second of film—the animals’ fur, the individual faces, the lovingly recreated backgrounds—every scene is overwhelmingly beautiful.

It took many months to make this film. The stop action process is so labor intensive that Anderson was lucky to get: 30 of film a day. There are an estimated total of 125,000 individual images in the film. Twenty-nine separate units of film technicians – puppeteers, costumers, musicians, etc. contributed to the film. [Check out two fascinating behind-the-scenes videos on the production of the film, at its website: http://www.fantasticmrfoxmovie.com.] For animation lovers like me, Fox was pure joy and I’ll definitely see the film many times.

Alas, I’m not so sure about the rest of the film going public. First of all, the film couldn’t possibly be aimed at children. It’s way too sophisticated and the dialogue, while entertaining for jaded adults like me, will go over the heads of most kids. Parents, see the movie yourselves. For the average adult, the film may be too slow–those details that grab the appreciation of artists just don’t make for compelling action in this film. And lastly, here we go again with another major film — millions of dollars in the budget — and it’s yet another story about a guy wanting his last chance of glory. Okay, the guy happens to be a fox. Nevertheless, except for Mrs. Fox–sweet, loving, and way too forgiving–every other major character in the movie, animal or human, is a male.

The story is somewhat based on Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was given to director Wes Anderson as his first book when he was seven years old, and kept on his bedside table for the next 30-some years. Mr. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) actually lived in Dahl’s garden cottage where he did most of his writing. (Dahl died in 1990). The two men soaked up the details of the cottage and the Buckingham countryside that inspired Dahl and then lovingly recreated it in the film. They discovered an alterative ending to the story that Dahl had considered—and used that ending in the movie, a jolly supermarket scene. No question but that the film is a labor of love for director Anderson and that passion comes through in every scene.

Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) was a legendary thief of chickens, ducks, turkeys and apple cider before a very close call made him promise his wife (voice of Meryl Streep) he’d go into a more honorable profession. He became a journalist, which I’m not sure is necessarily a step up. Life was boring but safe and for a long time Mr. Fox has kept his wild nature under control but he’s beginning to chafe under the burden of responsibility. Mrs. Fox, oblivious to her husband’s feral longings, has happily continued her hobby–creating oil paintings that depict lightning bolts striking the landscape during a thunderstorm. No one seems to wonder why she paints such images, nor what it is that she fears so much she can’t talk about it. Meanwhile fox cub Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman), idolizes his father, but as a runt, he doesn’t seem to have the physical or mental prowess to impress him. Even the school coach of the whackbat team (voice of Owen Wilson) dismisses any positive comparison Ash might want to share with his famous father.

Fearing the pressure of mortality–his father died when he was only a few months older than Mr. Fox is now — Mr. Fox decides he’s on at the end stage of getting better things for his family. He no longer wants to live in the cozy underground den his wife has made. He wants to move up in the world, literally. Disregarding the advice of his wise attorney, Badger (voice of Bill Murray), he insists on purchasing a penthouse in a beech tree on a hill.

The view conveniently overlooks the properties of the three different farmers, Boggins, Bunce and Beans, that were the scenes of his most notorious criminal exploits. Joining the family with an “Unaccompanied Minor” sign hanging around his neck is cousin Kristofferson (voice of the director’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson), who is tall, athletic, and does yoga. Ash hates Kristofferson of course, especially when Dad seems to favor him. The poor cousin is just trying to make the best of an uncomfortable position. It’s not his fault he’s so charming that Ash’s chemistry lab partner, sweet Agnes, would rather flirt with him than experiment with Ash.

Like all reformed crooks, Mr. Fox eventually has to do “one last job.” Breaking his promise to Mrs. Fox to stay on the straight and narrow, he plans the escapade with that old devil-may-care gusto. In so doing, brings down the wrath of the humans and all their mechanical earth-ripping power. They are determined now to shoot Mr. Fox on sight and there’s no shortage of firepower in this agrarian community. Mr. Fox does suffer the indignity of getting his tail shot off and seeing it used as a necktie, but at least he doesn’t get killed — yet. The force of the human onslaught destroys the Fox’s tree home and forces them underground.

Mr. Fox loses his cool façade over the loss of his tail. “I’m a wild animal and a husband and father!” he cries and vows to seek revenge. Even the nasty wiles of the security guard Rat (voice of Willem Dafoe) can’t dissuade Mr. Fox from his goals. He will unify the other ground dwelling creatures — badgers, moles, possums and rabbits — and literally form an underground rebellion. With a goodly amount of animation stunts, tunneling escapades, explosions, deceptions, petty jealousies, musical interludes, emotional revelations, and courageous crescendos, the wild animals forget their differences, exercise interspecies bonding and together they dig in to save their world.

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