George Clooney supplies the voice of the title character, a rakish and charismatic fox who specializes in stealing chickens from local farmers. He’s like Danny Ocean with a tail. But when his wife (Meryl Streep) gets pregnant, Mr. Fox promises her he will give up his life of crime. Twelve fox years later, Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist, but his true nature as a chicken thief can’t be denied, and he devises a master plan to rob the three meanest local farmers (Boggis, Bunce and Bean, “one fat, one short, one lean… nonetheless equally mean”). Unfortunately, he doesn’t anticipate their retribution, which endangers his family and all his friends, including his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray).
The film is visually dynamic and rather idiosyncratic. Most scenes take place almost perpendicular to the camera, which moves laterally but never tracks in close. It’s like watching an old side-scrolling video game. Also, Anderson shoots a lot of conversations in close up, with the characters speaking directly into the camera; it’s as if Jonathan Demme hijacked the film. There are even nods to Fellini, with characters popping up in the foreground of shots.
It’s not the normal palette for a children’s film, but this is unmistakably a Wes Anderson movie, full of bright colors, troubled family relationships, pop music of the 1960s and wry comic dialogue that masks characters’ inner pain.
Anderson couldn’t resist supplementing Dahl’s story with a subplot about a son seeking his father’s approval. Fox has a son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who means well but can be weird and off-putting, and is generally dismissed by his father. But Fox takes an interest in his visiting nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson, brother of the director), who is a natural athlete and proves adept at helping Fox with his thievery. This naturally infuriates Ash, who wants nothing more than to be included in his father’s schemes.
After Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was accused of not really being a children’s movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox is another film from a young hipster auteur that often seems to be pitched over children’s heads. Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) wrote the character relationships exactly the same way they would in a film made for adults, and while kids might not get everything in the film, they will appreciate more than we give them credit for.
And the film is pretty relentlessly delightful. It revels in ingenuity, with its love for master plans and bandit hats, and Dahl’s trademark disdain for authority and conformity makes Fox’s continued habit of putting one over on the farmers irresistibly delicious.
Anderson’s critics have said that his films can be too controlled for their own good, too strangled by their own style and Anderson’s attention to detail, but whether you agree with this or find Anderson’s style to be quirky and endearing, it makes sense that he would do a movie starring puppets that he controls completely. Yet Anderson embraces the handmade, naturalistic aesthetic inherent in stop motion, in which we can feel the effort that went into creating every frame, and see the animals’ fur move under the invisible hands of the puppeteers. He even recorded the actors’ performances in real environments that simulated the movie’s settings, instead of the usual sterile recording booths.
This dual aesthetic often seems to dovetail with one of the movie’s themes. There are a lot of cute, somewhat jarring scenes of, say, a fox wearing underpants, but there are also scenes (usually when the characters are eating) in which the animals show they are indeed wild. The movie seems to be saying that civilization and all its trappings are nice, but one’s true nature cannot be denied, even if that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Some of the best performances in the film come from the nonprofessional actors. Former Simpsons writer Wally Wolodarsky plays Kylie, a spacey, put-upon opussum who becomes Fox’s sidekick. And Eric Chase Anderson is surprisingly good as Kristofferson, playing the part with the subdued solemnity of someone who is used to excelling at everything and doesn’t find any pleasure in it.
But Clooney’s performance is the one that ties the film together. As Fox, he charms us and the other characters thoroughly, convinces us that his master plans could work after all. It’s amusing that Fox is heroic in saving his family and neighbors, but it’s his fault that they’re in trouble in the first place, and the movie never shies away from the moral uncertainty of this. While Fox is pretty fantastic, we’re never meant to embrace him wholeheartedly, and that ambiguity is pretty rare for a kids’ movie.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is hilarious and visually striking enough that it will delight everyone in the family, but the character writing that would be at home in an adult drama will thrill grown-ups most of all. Despite being an action-packed adventure comedy for kids, the movie is unmistakably a Wes Anderson film, with all the wry comedy and family dysfunction that implies.