‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’: Comic instincts

November 11, 2009

Perhaps “Fantastic Mr. Fox” will be the film that convinces adults that animation isn’t just for kids.

 

Indeed, given the sensibility of writer-director Wes Anderson, “Mr. Fox” is barely a movie for kids, despite its Roald Dahl pedigree. Anderson’s delicious take on life and movies may amuse youngsters – but not as much as it will tickle adults, with its delightfully anthropomorphized forest creatures who can’t quite escape their animal nature.

 

That idea – that animal nature is a given that even the most thoughtful creature can’t avoid – is at the heart of this oddly funny and endearing film, made in stop-motion animation. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach have adapted Dahl’s fantasy tale in their own voices, in a way that preserves the basics but makes it uniquely their own.

 

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a family man with a larcenous heart. His instinct tells him to raid the local chicken coops – but his love for his wife (Meryl Streep) has made him promise to give it all up and settle down, working a less dangerous job. (The irony, of course, is that Anderson gives him a job as a columnist at a newspaper, as endangered a species as you can find today.)

 

Fox makes this promise to settle down as he and his mate face certain death in a trap outside a chicken coop – a moment his wife selects to announce that she’s pregnant. Anderson then jumps forward a couple of years (or fox years, which are shorter), with Fox and Mrs. alive and well and living in an underground burrow, the parents of a surly teen.

 

Fox feels cramped by the subterranean digs, however, and bored with his job. He moves the family to a large tree, but still longs to follow his instinct and kill chickens. But he’s promised his wife that his criminal days are behind him.

 

Still, animal nature is a hard thing to shake. Fox and his pal Kylie (an agreeably dim possum) begin secretly raiding the local farms again – but that triggers retribution from the three local farmers, putting the whole animal community – characters who are like “Wind in the Willows” on acid – in jeopardy. The meanest of the farmers, Farmer Bean (Michael Gambon), makes it his mission to kill Fox, even if it means destroying his own land in the process.

 

Anderson and Baumbach write this all as a wry caper film, with Fox as a seductively charismatic leader, whose ideas are only limited by his instincts. He wants things his way but doesn’t want to appear bossy – so he constantly offers people choices, then finds polite ways to point out why the other way would be better.

 

The story also is fraught with low-key Oedipal tension: Fox’s son, Ash (perfectly voiced by Jason Schwartzman), is an oddball teen who lacks Fox’s prowess at, well, anything. So Ash gets jealous when his cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), comes to stay with them – and effortlessly surpasses him in virtually everything, earning Fox’s outspoken admiration.

 

The dialogue is never jokey yet always witty, creating characters that are distinctly human in their vanity, insecurity and petty jealousies. The one running gag is the tendency of these highly civilized characters – who are, indeed, more sophisticated than the grubby farmers who are trying to destroy them – to casually fall back on animal ways; i.e., going from low-key arguing to fierce growling and posturing, then back to less primitive forms of debate. Or sitting down to the dinner table with perfect manners, then attacking a meal with snarling speed and ferocity – before wiping their hands with a napkin.

 

The animation is wonderfully imaginative; these figures seem so alive at times that it’s startlingly magical. Though these are inanimate figures with little glass eyes, they seem to have more life than most of the characters in “Disney’s A Christmas Carol.” The voice acting is terrific as well, particularly Clooney, Schwartzman – and Bill Murray, perfectly cast as a badger.

 

Is “Fantastic Mr. Fox” a film for kids or adults? Well, yes – and each will come away with something different. There is enough action and slapstick to keep kids amused – but the sensibility is wry and offbeat enough to continually surprise a grown-up audience, provided they can overcome any lingering chauvinism about animation.

 

 

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