A strange little movie, The Fantastic Mr Fox is a whimsical slice of cinema that can’t seem to decide if it is intended to amuse children or adults. Perhaps neither?
This new stop-motion animated film is based on a well-loved picture book by the late Roald Dahl. Dahl was a British-Norwegian novelist, short story and screenwriter, who is perhaps best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Its quirky screenwriter and director is Wes Anderson, who brought us the art-house novelties Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Express. Curiously, each movie the eccentric Mr Anderson produces seems to alienate and further erode his audience base. This current misfire of a creative exercise is unlikely to make him any new friends.
Anderson has received a lot of criticism for his approach with bringing this beloved British classic to the screen. Incongruously, a host of A-list American actors were chosen to voice the main characters of this rural little drama. George Clooney plays the suave and dashing reformed villain Mr Fox (whose trademark whistle is a direct rip-off of Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye). Meryl Streep plays his long-suffering wife while Willem Dafoe voices the sinister Rat. In fact, almost all of Anderson’s favorite actors were cast (save Gwyneth Paltrow) including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. Anderson himself even voices one of the small characters, Weasel. The only recognizably British voice was that of the great Michael Gambon as the leader of the Farmers, Mr Bean.
In the story, an urbane Fox renounces his life of thievery and crime and settles down with his wife and child in a marvelous tree house. His home faces the three massive farms of his former nemeses, Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Inspired by a visiting nephew to execute a daring raid on all three farms, Fox”™s actions bring destruction upon his home, family and friends as the three angry Farmers join forces and resources, intending to rub out their foe for good.
The main criticism leveled at Anderson is his stylistic choices for the animation techniques used and his reportedly hands-off approach with the filming. In a published interview, Henry Selick, who gained acclaim for his exquisite 3-D animated feature Coraline, commented on Anderson”™s progress, saying, “Yeah, he”™s doing stop motion. He”™s directing from Paris through his iPhone, shooting movies of himself as the characters for the animators to work with.”
The Fantastic Mr Fox suffers greatly when compared with the sublime storytelling and complicated visual style achieved by Mr Selick and his team, or virtually any filmmaker working in animation today. The results are on the screen and they cannot be refuted. Anderson”™s use of old-fashioned stop-motion animation is stilted and choppy and his lens choices make the models look like models rather than real creatures brought to life. All you have to do is look at Selick”™s Nightmare Before Xmas and Coraline, Tim Burton”™s The Corpse Bride as well as the marvelous Aardman animation house, who brought us such delights as Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. All those titles are stop-motion animation films that transcend the craft. Gumby, Davey and Goliath and now The Fantastic Mr Fox – these perverse films could be called the anti-craft of stop motion, or slop-motion animation.
The overly simplified style and technique of Anderson”™s film pointlessly harks back to the earlier British style of stop-motion animation, such as The Wombles, Paddington Bear and The Wind in the Willows. These films remain classics of their era, but with all the technical advancements available in this century, why try to emulate those dated styles and techniques today?
In addition to the weird dialogue exchanges (Anderson”™s unique stamp is brayingly evident here), the story itself is a let down. Anderson”™s little tale cannot even be called a parable because there is no clear point or message to the story. Basically, a common thief is elevated to outlaw status after he outsmarts the big conglomerate farmers. There”™s nothing radical about a folksy anti-hero storyline, but is this fresh entertainment?
The Fantastic Mr Fox is a curiosity piece that left me scratching my head in puzzlement. Perhaps you will get something out of the experience. Please comment if you do!
Review by Pauline Adamek