By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Stylization is one of the great tools of moviemaking—its broadness can capture nuances that naturalism omits. But what's the tipping point between "stylized" and "mannered"? Is a mannered movie simply a stylized one you don't like? Anderson is notorious for controlling every detail on the set, and even for those of us who don't much like his movies, the level of old-school care he puts into his work counts for something. But is it possible to care too much about craft, at the expense of risk? Until very recently, seemingly 95 percent of movies, both big-studio films and independents, suffered from overuse of handheld cameras. It's a trend that's abating, thankfully, but Anderson never fell for it, which should be admirable. But even though Anderson's films—as shot by his go-to cinematographer, Robert Yeoman—are beautiful to look at, he could stand to move the camera around a little more: His images are static to the point of passivity. He stares through the lens so intently that we see only what he sees—he so thoroughly subjects us to his imagination that we barely have to use our own.
Characters in live-action Wes Anderson movies have adventures, yet there's no sense of adventure in them. It's not just that everything we see onscreen has unfolded according to a rigid plan—Hitchcock, among the most methodical of filmmakers, worked from storyboards, and you can't get much more rigid than that. But Hitchcock's pictures move like panthers, not like machines. Anderson, on the other hand, can't achieve—and perhaps doesn't care about—the illusion of fluidity. Like him, I love tiny things, small things made carefully, and he recognizes that the unapologetic artificiality of a scale model can be more believable than its full-size (or CGI) counterpart.
Perhaps that helps to explain my devotion to Fantastic Mr. Fox, the most technically obsessive film Anderson has ever made. It is, after all, a movie in which fur-covered puppets on wire armatures have been manipulated to do his bidding, shot by obsessive shot. George Clooney is the voice of Mr. Fox, a poultry thief and family man (or should that be family fox?) who tries to quit his life of crime but just can't manage it. With the help of a group of woodland associates, he breaks into the stores of three greedy farmers. All of Anderson's movies are about community, about being part of some makeshift or real family, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is the warmest and richest. When I find my annoyance with Anderson reaching peak levels, I think of the scene in which two little fox cousins who do not get along (voiced by Eric Anderson and Jason Schwartzman) creep from the beds in their cramped, shared bedroom—they've been bickering and can't get to sleep—and turn on a tabletop model train. They watch together in silence as it clickety-clacks around its track in the darkness, their annoyance with each other momentarily forgotten. There's no dialogue; the moment doesn't need any.
With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson put his trademark precision in the service of a story that ultimately feels wild and free. I have no idea how he pulled it off. Some have posited that Anderson is better when he's adapting other people's work, in this case, that of the rambunctious Roald Dahl. I've sometimes wondered if puppets aren't Anderson's ideal actors: They're easier to bend, literally and figuratively, than real-live people.
But in some ways, he has less control of them: Human actors are capable of listening to and translating a director's ideas, and their tools—voice inflections, subtle changes of expression, shifts in posture—have infinite gradations. Plus, they're often eager to please the guy they're working for. While puppets can be designed to exact specifications, then posed and moved quite precisely, they're empty vessels. They have no personal experience to draw from, no genetically inherited grace or clumsiness, no acting training or style of their own to fall back on. In that sense, they're the ultimate rebels; they have nothing to lose. Is it possible that Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed Anderson to edge closer to human feelings—his own or universal ones—because puppets, stubborn constructions that they are, made him work that much harder to figure out how human feelings should look?
How, for example, do you decide which direction the fur on a fox's face should whorl to indicate that he's stressed out or confused? What should his eyes look like when he thinks he's about to lose everything? Of course, in animation, the actors' voices go a long way in shaping individual characters. But those two silent little foxes, their eyes following that train as it goes round and round? Without words, they capture a specific but fleeting nuance of childhood joy and fragility. Anderson surely cares about every character he creates, but in Fantastic Mr. Fox, he shows true tenderness, divorced from gimmickry, for the first time. It's a kind of earthbound magic.
No matter how little I care for Anderson's other films, the unexpected miracle that is Fantastic Mr. Fox means I'll never be able to turn away from him completely. Though when I said earlier that Fantastic Mr. Fox is the only Wes Anderson film I love unequivocally, I was exaggerating. His 2007 short, Hotel Chevalier, a companion piece to The Darjeeling Limited, is pretty close to perfect. In it, a nameless character played by Jason Schwartzman has set up camp in a Paris hotel room. In the short's early minutes, he rings up room service and places an order in stilted, comic-book French, pausing to ask (in English) how to say "grilled cheese." No sooner has he hung up the phone than it rings, and the husky voice he hears through the receiver—it belongs to Natalie Portman—thrills and terrifies him. She's near the hotel; she's coming to see him. We have no idea what the deal is with these two. We wait to see whether they'll fall into each other's arms or tear each other apart. Or both.
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