What a Fox
Wes Anderson brings his Wes Anderson-ness to animation—and it’s a fantastic fit
Given his preference for static, symmetrical, scrupulously color-coordinated and art-directed compositions, it’s less surprising that Wes Anderson has directed an animated feature than that it took him this long to do it.
Film-studies majors, cultural anthropologists, and Sunday-arts-section editors will surely have their hands full comparing and contrasting Anderson’s fast-paced, visually majestic, stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the 1970 book by Roald Dahl, to the season’s other high-art kiddie-lit adaptation, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.
When Dahl sat down to write Fantastic Mr. Fox, he had already lost one of his five children to measles and witnessed another suffer from water on the brain as the result of a car accident. The book that resulted was a portrait of a father as family protector—the literal hunter/gatherer who must find new ways of putting food on the table after the three odious farmers, whose bounty Mr. Fox has regularly raided, get wise to his game. True to Dahl’s temperament, the book was incredibly dark by turns yet relatively straightforward: Mr. Fox was a fox, his human predators human, and never the twain should meet.
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Anderson—working with his Life Aquatic writing partner, Noah Baumbach—has blurred those lines and added an existential layer to his protagonist’s conundrum. Onscreen, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is now a corduroy-clad gentleman bandit who walks upright and steals not out of necessity, but because he’s good at it. Fast-forward several “fox years” later, and Mr. Fox has, at the behest of Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), traded his life of crime for a career as a newspaper columnist and the comforts of the life domestic. But in his heart, he remains footloose and fancy-free, looking to make one last score. “Who am I? Why a fox?” he asks, stating the film’s unanswerable question. “And can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in its teeth?”
Like Jonze, Anderson and Baumbach have done much else to expand and personalize the source material without violating its spirit, turning Dahl’s effectively stable (and somewhat bland) nuclear family into a more eccentric and passive-aggressive one, with Mr. Fox a reckless, self-absorbed paterfamilias in the Royal Tenenbaum/Steve Zissou mold, his four offspring condensed into a single moody, misfit teenager (named Ash and voiced by Jason Schwartzman).
For the reportedly painstaking labor it took to create, the film is a marvel to behold—all burnt-orange sunsets and fields of plenty, with wonderful shifts in perspective, an intensely tactile design and an intentional herky-jerkiness of motion that only enriches the make-believe atmosphere. The voice performances rank among the most richly nuanced ever captured for an animated feature, with Clooney (speaking slightly below his usual register, as if everything were a self-conscious aside) and Streep (resplendent as a former wildcat turned nurturing Earth mother) doing some of the best work of their illustrious careers. They render an unusually convincing portrait of a marriage, a reminder that the most unexpected thing about Anderson’s film is—underneath all the carefully affixed, wind-sensitive whiskers and fur—how deeply human it is.
Fantastic Mr. Fox was directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the children’s novel by Roald Dahl; and features the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman. Rated PG. Countywide.