Wes Anderson’s newest film, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, opened on Thanksgiving. It makes a solid case to be perennial Thanksgiving viewing; there’s a big feast in the middle of it, with a speech about everything we have to be thankful for. But more than that, it’s warm, clever, original, and very family-friendly. And its intentionally retro stop-motion animation is a throwback to another holiday favorite: it looks more like the perennially televised “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” than any movie made in the last twenty years.
Animated children’s movies are a new direction for filmmaker Wes Anderson, who has developed a cult following making odd, angular, verbose and oft-over-composed films like “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “Darjeeling Limited.” And yet the artifice of puppetry and animation seems to be exactly what Anderson needs to make his always cartoonish characters really come alive. Despite the fact that they’re quite obviously dolls, the characters here feel less stiff and directed than many characters in previous Anderson films. And it’s a visual feast; in the same way that I prefer a ’65 Mustang to a 2009 version of the same car, despite, or perhaps because of, its lack of amenities, soft edges, and creature comforts, I found “Fantastic Mr. Fox”s visual rough edges charming, appealing, and, in an odd way,refreshing. Sometimes CGI just looks soulless. Puppets have soul.
George Clooney voices the titular Mr. Fox, and somehow, simply through his voice, Clooney brings his own canon of movies into play; the character is a reformed chicken-thief who now writes for the local newspaper. He misses the excitement of the heist so much that he starts sneaking out at night to rob the nearby farms. “Fox” feels at times like a cross between “Ocean’s Eleven” and “The Squid and the Whale;” (Noah Baumbach is credited as a co-writer.) We transition, mostly smoothly, between heist master plans and prickly family dynamics, until everything falls apart, the farmers get their guns (and shovels, and bigger guns, and bigger shovels) and Fox finds himself responsible for an entire community of refugee forest animals.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a gloriously constructed, impeccably detailed caper movie, somehow both about family, community, and the alpha male’s need to recapture his past glory. At the heart of it all are questions about identity and purpose. Fox feels like he’s not really being true to his identity unless he’s stealing chickens; after all, that’s what foxes do. They’re not natural-born newspaper columnists. But he has to deal with the fact that, whether he likes it or not, being “true to his identity” puts his family, and his entire community, in danger. Is it more important to be who you are, or to protect the ones you love? Is there a way to do both? These are certainly questions relevant to creatures other than foxes.
Meanwhile, Fox’s son, Ash, just wants to live up to his father’s glory days; he styles himself as an athlete, despite a total lack of any athletic ability. When his much more physically gifted (and unpretentious) cousin shows up, and his father takes a liking to him, he channels his desperate desire for his father’s affection – and envy of his cousin’s talents – into resentment of both of them. Ironically, in his desire to emulate and win the praise of his father, he puts distance between the two of them. Any father of a teenage son is likely to identify with Fox’s frustration.
Once Fox has gotten the entire community (consisting of badgers, rabbits, moles, and other small furry creatures) into danger, it takes the combined skills of the community to get them out of it. Oh, and what a home it is; Anderson (or is it Dahl?) takes a swipe and modern life by moving the forest animals into an urban underground sewer system; it looks just like the forest, except it’s concrete and sewer pipes instead of earth and tree roots. And now they’re stealing imitation chicken from the grocery store, instead of chickens from the farmer. So it goes, I guess.
This has been a year full of children’s movies that don’t really appeal to children (Where the Wild Things Are and Coraline come to mind) and Fantastic Mr. Fox is that kind of movie. There’s no reason I wouldn’t take a kid to see this; it’s clean, mostly well-mannered, and neither violent, scary or vulgar. But I’m afraid most kids just won’t find it all that interesting. The jokes will be beyond them, the animation which will look nostalgic to adults will just look old and clunky to kids, and the relational/moral dilemmas are probably more than they need to be worried about. Some precocious kids will get it, and love it, but this might be the DVD you’re begging your kids to watch with you, instead of vice versa.