In the year of Avatar, Fantastic Mr. Fox comes close as the most visually unique film I have seen. If Avatar is St. Peter’s Basillica, this one is the cathedral in Siena- more personal, intimate and on a human scale. (Yes, I went to Italy recently. Why do you ask?)
In any case, why am I talking about Avatar? Because in the year of Avatar, you just have to.
So back to Mr. Fox. The film is directed by Wes Anderson, who has always had a distinct visual and narrative style, even if the story didn’t demand one. You can tell a Wes Anderson movie from its color palettes, its ensemble cast of quirky misfits, its extraordinary soundtracks and picturebook visual style. And the usual members of his traveling circus- Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Owen-Luke-other Wilson, Wolodarsky (either as actor or character), Kumar (and sometimes Dipak) Pallana.
Fantastic Mr. Fox has all those distinctive Wes Anderson elements, but it also has George Clooney, Meryl Streep and, for the first time for Anderson since The Royal Tennenbaums, it leads somewhere satisfying.
George Clooney as Mr. Fox steals the show with his voice. The rest of the cast is also wonderful, especially Michael Gambon as the disgusting farmer Bean and a surprisingly young sounding Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox.
The story is about the former chicken thief, the fantastic Mr. Fox (Clooney), who is now trying to go straight as a journalist. He has a column in the local paper, a loving wife (Meryl Streep) and a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) who yearns to be fantastic like his father, but always seems to fall short. An overachieving karate-champ gymnast cousin Kristofferson arrives, which only makes matters worse for young Ash.
Then Mr. Fox, bored with his straight and easy life, returns to stealing chickens. And turkey. And cider. From the three meanest farmers the world has ever known.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on a Roald Dahl book that my sister and I used to read many times twenty years ago, along with our other Dahl favorites like Charlie and the (Chocolate Factory|Great Glass Elevator), George’s Marvellous Medicine, Danny the Champion of the World and BFG. Most of his books had hideous older people with disgusting personal habits– Charlie’s grandparents, George’s grandmother, the Big not-so-Friendly Giants in BFG. Fantastic Mr. Fox had the three meanest farmers known to fox, Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Boggis and Bunce and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were none the less equally mean.
Sure there is a plot in this movie, one that sets the fantastic Mr. Fox as a protector of all the local critters against the menace of Franklin Bean. But that’s not what you’ll go see this movie for.
You’ll go for the most inventive and gorgeous stop-motion visuals. And you’ll go for a quirky story that never takes itself so seriously that it forgets what it is– a movie about an animated fox starring Clooney and Meryl Streep.
I’ll leave you with what Ebert said:
Like the hero of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” also based on one of his books, the creatures of Dahl’s valley seem to know more than they’re letting on; perhaps even secrets we don’t much want to know. Children, especially, will find things they don’t understand, and things that scare them. Excellent. A good story for children should suggest a hidden dimension, and that dimension of course is the lifetime still ahead of them. Six is a little early for a movie to suggest to kids that the case is closed. Oh, what if the kids start crying about words they don’t know? — Mommy, Mommy! What’s creme brulee?” Show them, for goodness sake. They’ll thank you for it. Take my word on this.