November 7, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (11/07/2009)

Lettergrade: A-

A remarkable thing about Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's excellent stop motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl story of the same name, is that the style and attitude are very consistent with Anderson's live action movies. In fact, I'd probably grade it a bit higher than his last two, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, both of which I felt lacked the heart and relatability of his earlier work. I give this one huge points for its style as well as for content. All of Anderson's trademark elements are here: The affinity for randomness, the adroit use of music, the uncomfortable close-ups, the lengthy wide shots in which the camera doesn't move, but the frame bustles with activity... Somehow, everything blends into a smooth cocktail that feels strangely familiar, and yet very unique and exciting at the same time.

A good comparison can be made between Fox and Spike Jonze's recent Where The Wild Things Are. Both are adaptations of beloved children books, made by established directors with highly distinctive styles. Both guys, who each happened to turn 40 this year, seemingly set out to make pictures in a slightly retroactive idiom that would appeal to their peers as much as to children, complete with killer soundtrack albums for each.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a master chicken thief back in the day, but decided to give it all up for a relatively mundane lifestyle upon learning that his wife, voiced by Meryl Streep, was expecting. After a few years, Mr. Fox gets antsy and decides to slip back into his old profession, only this time he ups the ante by taking on three particularly cruel local farmers. Through his overzealousness and boastful nature, Mr. Fox brings down the wrath of Boggis, Bunce and Bean in a way that threatens the entire animal community (kinda like a traditional Bugs Bunny / Elmer Fudd story on HGH).

The several voices from Anderson's usual acting troupe round out the cast, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwarzman, and from Life Aquatic, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. Anderson was reportedly obsessed with recording the dialogue in groups and on-location (as opposed to the normal technique of recording each actor separately in a studio). The result is that no one in the vocal cast over-does it: The character interactions are natural and under-stated, and the recordings have an interesting quality in and of themselves. When Mr. Fox and his family are trapped in an attic, for example, Anderson stuck his cast in an enclosed, reverberant space as well, giving the audio an unusual vibe that no Pro Tools plug-in could replicate.

After story-boarding the movie extensively, Anderson apparently spent little time on the actual set itself, leading to a very public feud earlier this year with the film's cinematographer, Tristian Oliver, over how involved Anderson really was with the finished picture. I tend to side with Anderson on the matter: Many of the film's creative decisions bear his unusual signature leading me to suspect that he was indeed involved in many of the key details. Whether those decisions were made by Anderson himself or by someone attempting to imagine what Anderson would do based on his other pictures, however, I do not know.

This is an odd statement to make about a kiddie flick like this, but at times I found myself almost forgetting that it was animated in a weird sort of way. The great vocal performances as well as the vintage songs by Burl Ives and The Beach Boys in additional to the fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat just helped everything to feel sorta real after a while.

Putting on a more critical hat, the last third is plagued by some pacing issues (mostly in that it was starting to feel a bit sluggish before the big finale), and sometimes the bad guys come off as a little too theatrically evil. Additionally, I am probably hardwired to believe that some kind of moral lesson is imbued within the story that should be clear by the time the end credits roll. Mr. Fox is a remarkably self-centered dude early in the movie, not giving much regard to how his actions will affect his family and neighbors. I don't want to give much away here, but by the end of picture, it feels that while Fox might be a little nicer to everyone, he hasn't really picked up much wisdom along the way.

While watching the rerelease of Toy Story last month, I remember thinking what a shame it is that there hasn't been a sophisticated animated picture in a while that appeals to adults while not resorting to cheap lowest common denominator shit like big goofy faces, unmotivated flatulence, and Smash Mouth songs in order to keep the kids interested. And yet, here one is. In many ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox is exactly the kind of movie I've been wanting to see for several years now.

1 comment: