Fantastic Mr. Fox (United States, 2009)

November 23, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fantastic Mr. Fox Poster

While it might be a stretch to claim that Fantastic Mr. Fox is "fantastic," it's easily among the year's best animated features. If there's an argument against the film (and, admittedly, it's not much of an argument), it's that the movie may not be suitably childish to appeal to younger viewers. The screenplay, adapted from the novel by Roald Dahl, is too literate to hold the attention of the littlest ones. Fantastic Mr. Fox, which lacks the kind of hyperkinetic action scenes that resemble video game extracts, seems to have been designed more with adults and mature kids in mind. Plus, while the old school stop-motion animation is beautiful in its own way, some viewers will find it primitive in comparison with the slickness that can be achieved with the computer generated variety.

Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney), an animal of the expected species, is an ex-thief who now earns his living as a newspaper columnist. Bored with living in a hole, he decides to buy a house in a tree and moves in with his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), and son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). They are soon joined by Mr. Fox's nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who is staying with them while his father recuperates from double pneumonia. The tree house is close to the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, and the lure of easy loot proves too tempting for Mr. Fox to ignore, despite a two-year old promise to his wife never to steal again. So, with his faithful sidekick, Kylie the opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), in tow, he sets out to steal chickens from Boggis, ducks and geese from Bunce, and alcoholic cider from Bean. He succeeds, but the farmers aren't happy and decide to use every means at their disposal to remove the blight of Mr. Fox from their little corner of the world.

Anderson's adaptation of the Dahl novel is so smooth and effortless that I'm tempted to say he has unearthed his calling. For the most part, I have found his live-action films (which are generally much beloved by critics) to be intelligent-yet-pompous (consider, for example, The Darjeeling Limited), but Fantastic Mr. Fox, perhaps because it is envisioned as being family-friendly, is just plain smart. For the most part, Anderson keeps his proclivity for pretentiousness in check, although there are times when the assembled animals sound like lost members of The Royal Tenenbaums. The humor is often subtle, but that doesn't rob it of its ability to provoke smiles and laughter. And the animated nature of the production robs some of the more mean-spirited elements of their sting. Fantastic Mr. Fox may not get PETA's stamp of approval (some birds meet gruesome fates) but the MPAA saw it as worthy of nothing more restrictive than a mild PG.

Dahl purists may complain that the movie doesn't end the same way the book does, but Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach reportedly uncovered an alternative ending devised by Dahl that didn't make it into print, and this was used to inform the conclusion. Whether or not this is true, the pieces of the movie that do not replicate aspects of the novel are nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the source material. I'd place this alongside Matilda as a motion picture that "gets" the book and transforms its essence to the screen.

The voice work is superlative. George Clooney brings the right mix of bravado and self-deprecation to the part of Mr. Fox. Often, using an immediately recognizable voice for an animated character can be a problem, but Clooney is so charismatic that he manages to overcome the hurdle. Meryl Streep, who has been branching into new areas recently (first Mamma Mia!, now this), is effectively subtle. Anderson "regulars" Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray (possibly atoning for Garfield) provide support, as does Willem Dafoe as the dastardly Rat, who seems to have learned his moves from watching West Side Story a few too many times. Michael Gambon uses his rumbling bass to good effect as the dastardly Bean. So this is life after Dumbledore...

It's a curious fact that most films based on Dahl stories have become more highly regarded with the passage of time than they are when released. This has been the case with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (although not necessarily the Tim Burton re-telling of the story), James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. Henry Selick clearly has a love for Dahl. He was the director of James and the Giant Peach and was originally attached with Anderson for this film (he left to helm Coraline). Anderson has proceeded as Selick might have and the stop-motion style is in keeping with what Selick would likely have achieved. (The group of animators were the same.) In addition to recalling James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox reminded me of the Aardman movies, especially Chicken Run. Not only is the "look" similar but the philosophy of voice characterization is the same (with the unmistakable vocal stylings of Mel Gibson front-and-center). Both films also boast screenplays whose sophistication belies their format.

Are there kids who will enjoy the hell out of Fantastic Mr. Fox? Sure. But I suspect that in many cases, this is one animated offering where the parents will get more out of it than their offspring.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-13
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1