“Fantastic Mr. Fox”? Is.
After all the hubbub this week about how this film was made, I guess I didn’t know what to expect walking into the theater on the Fox lot tonight. Now, having seen it, there is little doubt that this is a Wes Anderson film in every way. You can absolutely feel his overall sensibility at play in every detail of what you see onscreen. The script, co-adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, is a delight, a very funny riff off of the original Roald Dahl source material, and the result is one of the most giddy comedies of the year.
But like “Where The Wild Things Are,” my first question is: can you really call this a kid’s film?
In this country, there is are two things about the general attitudes to animation that drive me crazy. First, animation is not a genre. It’s a technique. It’s a description of a general set of tools used to tell a story. Second, animation is not for children. Not by definition. It’s just that filmmakers have always been so restricted in what they’ve been able to commercially convince studios to let them make. And still are, really. Pixar is a brilliant company, a great collection of storytellers, but they carefully, shrewdly built their brand on children’s films that don’t pander. They make films that a three year old can watch and understand, and that an adult can watch and enjoy. The people who do make “adult” animation typically make it very explicit and make sure you know it’s for adults, with uncommon exceptions.
I would call “Fantastic Mr. Fox” a sophisticated and hilarious example of the best kind of serious adult animation, where any younger audience that sees it is going to get about 30% of what’s going on. They’ll understand only the broadest, funniest, silliest strokes. Most of what’s going on, the relationship stuff, the character interplay, is written squarely for adults. It is just plain good writing, and the vocal performances are very natural and honest. It’s not adult because it’s dirty; it’s adult because it’s nuanced and smart.
Word is that Anderson recorded the cast together, all at once, in environments meant to match the environments onscreen. That’s absolutely not the way you record an animated film typically. If the cast for most animated movies ever meet, it’s when they finally see the film for the first time and they go to the afterparty. Here, the cast played all their scenes together, and the result is interesting, filled with the rhythms you can only get when you’ve got people playing off of each other.
You know what’s crazy? Considering the heavyweights in the film, I think Jason Schwartzman gives my favorite performance in the film. He plays Ash, the son of Mr. Fox, George Clooney’s character, and his work in scene after scene, moment after moment, is both funny and awkward and real.
The opening scene, which makes spectacular use of “Heroes and Villains” by The Beach Boys, is set before Ash’s birth, the moment when Mrs. Fox, played by Meryl Streep, actually tells Mr. Fox that they’re expecting a baby. They’re liberating a few chickens from a farm, and the sheer abandon of the sequence, and the precision with which it’s depicted, is a clue as to just what sort of visual treat awaits in the rest of the film. This is a handmade world, tactile and fake and beautiful. The movie was made at the Three Mills Studio in London, where they also made “The Corpse Bride.” I visited that set, and it was absolutely fascinating, one of the most technically thrilling sets I’ve ever seen. There’s more that links “Fox” to “Corpse Bride” than just the studio space they shared, though. The stop motion characters were all fabricated by Ian MacKinnon and Peter Saunders. I met them on the “Corpse Bride” set, and they were the chief fabricators there, too. Their work is, simply put, art. When you see it up close or hold it in your hand, and you look at all the detail, all the fine work they do on each and every character, everything about them.
No, wait, I changed my mind. I think my favorite performance is by Wallace Wolodarsky, who plays an opossum named Kylie who becomes Mr. Fox’s de facto sidekick. This former “Simpsons” writer has had his hand in a lot of films as a writer, and made a pretty solid comedy called “Coldblooded” at one point. His chemistry with Clooney is effortlessly funny, and also very effective by the end of the film. Charming.
Another link between “Fox” and “Corpse Bride” is producer Allison Abbate. You may also know a little movie she produced called “The Iron Giant.” On these films, she’s the producer who is there, with the animators, working alongside them. Scott Rudin’s a co-producer on this, and I’m sure he was a huge part of the process with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach and the cast and the big picture. But for the day to day of Three Mills Studio, it’s Abbate, who started her career in animation with “Runaway Brain” and the terrifyingly awful “Space Jam,” who has the time in the trenches on these films, and I think for Wes Anderson, an animation neophyte, to make a film this carefully crafted is a testament to the people who worked on it who have done this before. Tristan Oliver, the director of photography, shot “Chicken Run” and Wallace & Gromit in their feature film and in “The Wrong Trousers,” among other things. This guy has gotten better and better over the years, really working to make his worlds feel more and more convincing, so you’re never thinking about what you’re looking at as miniature, but instead, to accept it as a world, a living space.
Hold on, I think I changed my mind again. I’m sorry. I think my favorite performance is Willem Dafoe, who resurrects his accent from playing Bobby Peru in “Wild At Heart,” but with a whoooole lot more silibance. He’s a rat, literally, in the film, the head of security for Farmer Bean, played by Michael Gambon. No, cuss it, I think I’m going to have to say Gambon gives my favorite performance, the meanest of the three farmers who Mr. Fox torments on purpose. He’s pure spite, not pure evil, and it’s a display of precision comic timing on Gambon’s part throughout.
“Cuss” is the new “frak.” Bank on it.
Actually, I’m really taken by the work of Eric Chase Anderson in the film as Kristofferson, Mr. Fox’s nephew who comes to live with the family while his own dad tries to recover from double pnuemonia. Kristofferson seems to be everything Ash is not, and Mr. Fox’s visible glee at discovering this relative who finally seems to be really related to him. Eric is Wes’s brother, the one who does a lot of the artwork for Wes’s films, and this is the biggest role he’s ever had in anything. He’s great, and part of the kick is that it’s not a voice you’ve heard a million times… he’s simply Kristofferson.
I love “Where The Wild Things Are,” but I totally acknowledge that there are a lot of people who are going to want something different from that film. For them, more fun with the Wild Things is what they wanted, and that’s fair. They are a fairly sad and fragile bunch. I think many parents are going to be upset if they take very young (under five) kids to see that film, which I addressed earlier in my review. But with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” no matter how real and three-dimensional the emotional underpinnings of the film, it is always, always, always moment-to-moment hilarious. If you’re considering “Wild Things,” but you’re worried it might be too heavy for your kid, just wait. This is a much easier shared experience.
You know what? I know I sound like a broken record this fall, talking about “The Men Who Stare At Goats” and “Up In The Air” and chatting with the guy, but George Clooney really is the glue here, the one who sets the main comic tone and rhythm for the film, and it’s a wry, sly, and yes, foxy comic turn. He plays it like he’s the Cooler King or, well… Danny Ocean. Who am I kidding? Clooney’s the man. Or the fox, rather. His blowhard toasts, his trademark noise, his rapport with Kylie, his fetish for bandit hats… it’s all played just right.
In adapting Roald Dahl’s book, the greatest additions have been the characters of Ash and Kristofferson, and their rivalry and gradual friendship is one of the most authentic and appealing things about the movie. It’s also one of the things that makes this so recognizably a Wes Anderson film. The composition, the way everything is designed, the complicated feelings about family, the Owen Wilson role… how could this be anything but a Wes Anderson film, and I think it’s overall the best thing he’s done since “The Royal Tenenbaums,”
I haven’t even touched on the farmers or the hilarious battle of the wills that plays out or all the great small performances or the eternal love of blueberries that ever beagle shares. I have barely scratched the surface of the myriad pleasures of the film.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” will be the opening night gala at AFI Fest here in Los Angeles, and it’s in theaters everywhere November 20th. I’m surprised by the fervor of my own reaction, but I think this is a very special film, and I hope it’s not the last time Anderson directs an animated film.
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