With 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' Wes Anderson Finds His Genre: Animation

20th Century Fox

City Pulse | November 9, 2009
Wes Anderson is famous for his quirky sense of absurdist humor. Although he might argue against it, Anderson seems to have finally found his forte -- in animation, vis-a-vis Roald Dahl's 1970 children's book. With a script co-written by Anderson and Noah (The Squid and the Whale) Baumbach, Anderson creates a magical stop-animation world inhabited by a family of foxes, various other woodland creatures, and a group of human farmers who don't take kindly to having their livestock and cider carried off by animals. George Clooney applies his signature leathery voice to Mr. Fox, a snappily dressed family guy whose animal nature wars with his interest in his family's safety as they keep house in their peaceful foxhole. Meryl Streep voices Mr. Fox's even-keeled wife, and Jason Schwartzman speaks for the couple's bratty son Ash. Ash tries to compete with his athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) who has come to stay with the family. Three nearby industrial farms (Boggis, Bunch, and Bean) prove too much of a temptation for Mr. Fox, whose plan to raid the three farms brings down more human wrath than he is prepared to handle. There are some significant coincidences between Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are and Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Both stories rely on themes of the untamed animal nature inside all of us, and of child characters actively interacting in an adult world. Toward that narrative end Anderson's film better satisfies, perhaps because Dahl's book presented more developed source material than Maurice Sendak's book. Anderson's lavish attention to visual detail supports the dry wit on display in a highly original animated film geared to appeal equally to children and adults.

Wes Anderson always works with a co-writer. He wrote his first three films with Owen Wilson before writing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) with Noah Baumbach, whose co-writing contribution to Mr. Fox seems to mesh seamlessly with the intentionality of both Dahl's book and Anderson's wisecracking approach.

The director's signature gestures (unusual props, insert shots, quick hand-held pans between characters, and a fascination with active lifestyle cross-section visuals) come to life in a cinematic canvas covered in kitschy filigree. The exquisite perfection of the fur on Mr. Fox's head inspires wonder in a magical mythical cartoon way that beguiles you. The lush beauty of the film's specific style of animation breathes with an organic quality that is rich in texture, color, and sophistication.

The film opens with Mr. Fox leaning against the hilltop tree positioned directly over his family's rural England home at dusk. The sun's warm golden light reflects off the strands of wheat that blossom from the tan breast pocket of the dapper Mr. Fox. The Davy Crockett theme song ("The Ballad of Davy Crockett") plays on Mr. Fox's transistor radio and we get a sense of time, mood, and switched places; we're in an England where Davy Crockett is played on a rural radio station. Right away, the filmmakers capture your imagination with a dynamic visual style that is the polar opposite of the cold animation techniques used in Disney's A Christmas Carol. Anderson took inspiration from Russian filmmaker Ladislas Starevich's 1941 stop-motion film Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox), whose "herky-jerky" look gave it a special organic quality.

In Wes Anderson's hands Roald Dahl's imaginative child's story takes on a meta significance as a human-development-coming-of-age story that applies across age groups, generations, social strata, and even species. Taking responsibility for emotional commitments has been a through-line in all of Anderson's films, which began with the cult favorite Bottle Rocket (1996) before zigzagging across muddled comic landscapes in Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007).

Like his last four films, Fantastic Mr. Fox falls under the spell of a roguish father figure that commands respect and suspicion for his unconventional approach to life. Mr. Fox is a loving but ambitious soul subject to the temptation of greed. Since accidentally allowing he and his wife to be captured by humans ten years ago, Mr. Fox has sworn off all criminal acts. However, when Mr. Fox eats, his true animal nature comes out and we witness the sudden and violent transformation from human to animal nature and back again. It's this same uncontrollable nature that causes Mr. Fox to enact a goofy burglary plan that leads to all sorts of fireworks. The eating transformation is also an example of the elegant way the filmmakers depict a dichotomy and unity between animal and human nature in a single stroke. The humor is fast-paced and the style is vibrant, but it's the actors that flex the characters' muscles. That's what you get here, animated characters with muscles flexed by the likes of Meryl Streep and George Clooney, funny-bone included.
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