Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Elise Nakhnikian

“We all are [different] – especially him,” Mr. Fox’s wife tells their son in Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson’s latest feature and his first to be shot in stop-motion animation. “But there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?”

Defiant yet defensive, slyly funny, and delivered by an actor at the top of her game (in this case, the great Meryl Streep), that’s a classic Anderson line. It also sums up the spirit that animates his world.

Like J.D. Salinger, Anderson always tells stories about sensitive, intelligent misfits with an adolescent combination of diffidence and arrogance. Think the sad-sack brothers and their truth-seeking mother in The Darjeeling Limited, or Rushmore’s Max Fisher and the faux family he finds at boarding school.

These are the kinds of people you either love or hate. I’ve swung both ways. I liked Steve Zissou’s spacey charm in The Life Aquatic, but I wanted to wipe the eyeliner off Gwyneth Paltrow’s face and tell her to get a job in The Royal Tenenbaums. And, though I enjoyed the ride for a while in Darjeeling, I eventually got bored by all the whining.

But even when his characters annoy me, there’s a lot to enjoy in Anderson’s movies. Like his deadpan humor, or the way he plays with color, like a kid with a new 64-piece box of Crayolas. Or the sights and sounds he creates, which can be as surreal and compelling as a recurring dream. And there’s the air of melancholy underlying it all, which bubbles up to the surface every so often to produce a moment of poetic pathos.

I can’t say I loved Mr. Fox – it’s a little too cool for me to get that fiercely attached – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first of Anderson’s movies that I’ve liked without reservation, maybe partly because it’s the first one he based on a story by somebody else – a less-known work by classic children’s book author Roald Dahl.

Dahl’s story was a lot shorter than the one told here. Anderson and his cowriter, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding) are very faithful to the tone and plot of the original, but they flesh it out with new characters and action scenes and a much more complicated relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Anderson also slipped in one of his patented tormented misfits, replacing the Foxes’ four nondescript kids with one runty malcontent, Ash (muttered by Jason Schwartzman).

But Ash isn’t the main character this time; he’s a comically miserable supporting character. This is the swashbuckling story of a jaunty, resourceful hero, the fantastic Mr. Fox (nicely voiced by George Clooney in cocky/suave, Ocean’s Eleven mode).

After Mr. Fox enrages a trio of farmers by stealing their poultry, they vow to take revenge. But just as they’re about to extinguish him, his family, and all the animals unlucky enough to live on the same hillside, Mr. Fox organizes a clever counter-offensive.

It’s a simple enough story, but it’s nicely told, with plenty of that wry, borderline absurdist Anderson humor (“Beagles love blueberries,” Mr. Fox explains as he dopes a guard dog with a berry laced with knockout drugs). It’s well paced, too, holding our interest by staying at just 87 minutes and cutting judiciously between domestic drama, action, and light nonsense, like Mr. Fox’s encounters with a drunken rat (Willem Dafoe).

Stop motion – that painstakingly handmade technique, in which puppets are moved through miniature sets, their every motion broken down into pieces and shot frame by frame – is a natural fit for Anderson. His strongly imagined but relatively one-dimensional characters turn out to make very good cartoon animals. After all, who could be slyer than a fox? The DIY look of stop-motion rhymes with his trendily retro sensibility, and building every inch of every set from scratch lets him indulge his famously obsessive penchant for controlling environments and salting backgrounds with entertaining details. What's more, the visual freedom of animation sets him free to create lovely bits, like the loopily frenetic sequences in which the animals tunnel through the earth at supersonic speeds.

Anderson augmented the tactile feel of his laboriously constructed sets by filming his actors in action, rather than shutting them up in sound booths to lay down tracks in isolation and then combining them in post-production, the way most animated movies do. When the characters were outdoors, the actors were shot out of doors, and when there's a group scene or a dialogue, the actors involved got together to shoot the scene.

The excellent cast, which includes Michael Gambon and Bill Murray, does wonderful voice work, individually and together. Their sometimes overlapping dialogue and the ambient sounds captured along with their dialogue help the movie breathe, banishing the airless feel of so much computer-generated animation.

As a result, the Foxes' world feels surprisingly real, even though every millimeter is made by hand and it doesn't look the least bit "realistic."

And there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?

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