Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2009

Clever like a 'Fox'

Wes Anderson makes stop-motion animation entirely his own in the beautiful and eccentric 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Starring: The voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Wallace Wolodarsky, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson
Rated PG / 1 hour, 27 minutes
Opened November 25, 2009
(out of four)

How many filmmakers in the world could move from live-action to stop-motion animation as gracefully as Wes Anderson has, all while protectively retaining their own artistic sensibilities? To be honest, I hope there would be plenty of others, but how many would even dare to try?

Anderson, the indie auteur darling of The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore fame, has now made stop-motion his own, and in doing so has crafted one of the best films of his career. And actually, it makes perfect sense that he would be attracted to animation. He has often cited the late Bill Melendez - director of dozens of Charlie Brown films, including, of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas - as one of his biggest influences. You might remember hearing "Christmastime is Here" played during Tenenbaums.

The same artistry that Melendez brought to Peanuts, Anderson has brought to Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the book by Roald Dahl. The film is at once a dazzlingly new experience for Anderson vets, and as comfortably familiar as anything in his oeuvre. The exquisite tableaus that have defined his visual style remain - and feature the kind of brilliant details that should catch the eye of Oscar voters, if only they paid attention to animated fare in the art direction category. (In fact, I think this movie might have my favorite production design of the year.)

Anderson's patented style of panning camerawork is put to great use as always. Even his deadpan sense of humor and his terminal affinity for father/son issues and complex family dynamics. This is, to put it simply, a Wes Anderson film in every sense. Yet the animation style and Dahl's storyline seem to have freed him up creatively. This is the most thrillingly alive movie he has made in years.

From the first shot, you may instinctively know you're watching something special. Anderson sets up a bizarre but somehow perfect Western motif, opening up with our hero, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), in the center of the frame, casually leaning against a tree on top of a hill, the burnt yellow sky slowly rolling along as "Davy Crockett" plays quietly on Mr. Fox's walkman. He and the little lady (Meryl Streep) are scavenging food - as, being the wild, non-domesticated animals that they are, they tend to do.

Not anymore, though. Mrs. Fox is pregnant. She informs her husband of this after the two have gotten trapped in a cage on the property of what is sure to be one angry farmer. And so the life of the wild is put to rest. Mr. Fox gets a respectable job at the local paper, runs a respectable family, even tries to buy a more-than-respectable house - one that, in truth, is a little out of his price range.

But naturally, that comfortable life of his isn't enough to quench that wild desire inside. After all, those three nasty farmers nearby - Boggis, Bunce and Bean - are just begging to have their stockpiles of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, apples and hard apple cider swiped. And so it begins.

Insisting that he's just gotten lucky at the local market - he's clever as a fox, that Mr. Fox - Mr. Fox starts bringing home food and drink worthy of a grand feast. But it's not long before the farmers catch on to his antics and, led by the odious Bean (Michael Gambon), try to snuff him out.

Soon Mr. Fox, his family, his friends and every animal in the valley get uprooted from their homes and forced underground, with the farmers' stakeout crew waiting to blast off their heads if they come up for air. The animals dig themselves as deep as they can, but they can't survive there forever. That, of course, is what Boggis, Bunce and Bean are counting on.

The schemes that Mr. Fox comes up with - before and during their standoff with the farmers - are ingenious both in their zany complexity and in the way Anderson handles them. I don't know that he's ever shown quite this level of visual dexterity. His creativity with cinematic language in this film is stunning. Consider the way the fight scene with Rat (Willem Dafoe) plays out. Or the way we see the turkey-and-goose heist on a wall of surveillance monitors. Or the virtuoso display of montage during Mr. Fox's deliciously mischievous underground scheme at the height of the standoff.

This is a film constantly surprising us with its wit, its charm, its absurdity, its playfulness, its beauty. Moments of completely unexpected and perfectly timed humor will erupt out of nowhere.

And while we all know how much Anderson takes pleasure utilizing pop music, how about this: a true-blue musical number during which one above-ground character serenades the others with a song describing the very events we're watching take place under ground. Or the follow-up to that song - and maybe my favorite moment of the entire film - when the perpetually ornery Bean responds to the song in the grumpiest and most hilarious of ways. ("You wrote a bad song!")

In a film full of strong voice work, Gambon might stand out the most. He makes for a marvelous villain, milking that thick, gruff accent of his for all the mileage he can get.

Clooney - who these days seems to be able to melt into just about any role and knock it out of the park, no matter if it's as a leading man, a supporting player or just a voice - reminds us of his character from O Brother, Where Art Thou. He has that same foolhardy self-confidence, the same tendency for well-philosophized mischief that goes horribly wrong.

I could go on and on about all the lines, details, moments and visual touches that make Fantastic Mr. Fox so memorable. Then again, there are so many of them, I'd have to see the film again just to do it justice. Happy to oblige.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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