*Fantastic Mr. Fox (PG)
Wes Anderson is nothing if not unique. From his Bottle Rocket debut to unheralded gem The Darjeeling Limited, the Texas-born filmmaker has developed a signature aesthetic. And with Fantastic Mr. Fox, he proves it can lift even a stop-motion animated feature.
Adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach from Roald Dahl's 1970 children's novel, the surprisingly adult-ish film stars George Clooney as the titular animal and Meryl Streep as his no-less-fantastic wife. After a chicken-hunting prologue that sees the couple narrowly escape danger, Mr. Fox promises his wife he'll retire from a life of crime and settle down to start a family. Several fox-years later, the dapperly dressed Mr. Fox finds himself working as a newspaper columnist who no one reads, living in a tree he can't quite afford, questioning his place in the world.
In Dahl's book, the Fox family includes four children, but here the kids are condensed into one sulking teen son named Ash (Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman), who competes with his newly arrived, more athletic, hippy-dippy cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, Wes' brother) for his father's attention.
Risking home and family, Mr. Fox decides to go behind his wife's tail to steal produce from three greedy farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, with help from Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), a loyal, lovable opossum who tends to zone out whenever Fox gives instructions. Naturally, the farmers then declare war on the foxes and their friends. Anderson uses this deceptively simple setup to further explore the Fox family dynamic and to incorporate one of his favorite themes, that of father-son dysfunction.
Recent articles about Mr. Fox have focused on Anderson's unorthodox decision to direct the film from afar and to trust his animators so completely. However, you can't second-guess Anderson's choice to record the voice cast together on location, rather than individually in a studio environment. The result is warmth and spontaneity in the performances. Ideas like this, and the decision to use real animal fur on the puppets, give the film an admirable handmade quality.
Clooney is perfectly cast as the sly fox, his movie-star charm conveying cunning wisdom. Streep burrows under her character's fur to bring gravity to the reluctant yet supportive Mrs. Fox, though the script doesn't allow her to stand out. Schwartzman and Wolodarsky both deliver wonderfully nuanced performances as the boys, but it's Willem Dafoe who steals the movie as the deliciously vicious, cigarette-smoking Rat. They're supported by Bill Murray as Mr. Fox's lawyer, Owen Wilson as confusing Coach Skip, chef Mario Batali as Rabbit, and musician Jarvis Cocker as a banjo-strumming farmhand.
In the big picture of Anderson's career, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a less "important" work, lacking the depth of feeling that endeared Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited to legions of fans. Still, it entertains with charisma to spare; the offbeat, witty script has a strong, though familiar, message at its core; and it's impossible not to be charmed by the exquisitely rendered animation.
Fantastic Mr. Fox may be an adaptation, but it's as "Wes Anderson" as any of the director's movies, each frame infused with his trademark style, which includes a penchant for prologues, close-ups, quick pans, chapter titles, hipster fashion and the Rolling Stones. Dahl's story provides the perfect framework on which for Anderson to hang his quirky comic and emotional sensibilities. The author himself would be proud.