Review in a Hurry: Awkward-humor auteur Wes Anderson, Oscar-winner George Clooney, and Willy Wonka creator Roald Dahl come together for a stop-motion animated feature that doesn't seem like it should make any sense at all—but it totally does. Fantastic, indeed.
The Bigger Picture: Fantastic Mr. Fox is one-of-a-kind and one of the year's best, though it definitely has echoes of other themes that are currently prevalent.
Like Up, it has animals that speak English, yet can suddenly, abruptly revert to idiosyncratic animal behavior, usually to humorous effect.
Like Where the Wild Things Are, it takes a beloved children's book and stays mostly true to it, while at the same time being very much a piece with the director's unique style and way of looking at the world.
But unlike Wes Anderson's other attempts to branch out—the clunky attempts at action sequences in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou come to mind—Fantastic Mr. Fox is a rollicking, kid-friendly animated adventure, albeit one full of ironic dialogue and bizarre non sequiturs that will fly over the young'uns' heads.
Our protagonists are anthropomorphic subterranean mammals who live much like people, wearing clothes, holding down jobs and so forth, but also behaving according to their nature, which is to say that Mr. Fox steals and kills chickens from nearby farms. Birds, it seems, aren't anthropomorphic in this world; they're food. And domesticated dogs simply act like dogs, not people. Plus, foxes and badgers speak and write in English that can be understood by humans. Yet it all works. Maybe not super logically under geek-level analysis, but instinctively, on a kid level, sure.
Mr. Fox is voiced by George Clooney, in a casting nod clearly designed to draw mileage from his Ocean's heist movies. Retired from the farm-raiding business after he inadvertently puts his wife (Meryl Streep) in danger, he writes a newspaper column that nobody reads. Hoping to improve his family's life, he stretches his finances to buy a large tree house, but the new place just so happens to be right next door to three of the richest and most nasty farmers in all of...England? It's hard to tell, since all the animals speak like Americans, while the evil farmers, led by a gun-toting bully coincidentally named Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon) remain solidly British.
The book was of course set in Dahl's native country, but the book was also relatively short. Anderson's film adds an entire new third act, as well as a subplot involving the rivalry between Fox's awkward son and his athletic cousin. The Dahl estate are usually control freaks about fealty to the text, so it's interesting (and cool) that they gave this a pass.
While absolutely an Anderson film, it's arguably his most commercial feature to date, and certainly his laugh-out-loud funniest. In many of his movies, the humor is such that you don't quite know if you're meant to laugh or not, while here there is no doubt.
The 180—a Second Opinion: U.K. critics are already fuming about the Americanized elements, so if you're a purist on that level, caveat emptor.
(Originally published Nov. 12, 2009, at 7:05 p.m. PT)
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