I’m intrigued by the critical reception to Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox. It currently sits at 92% on the Rotten Tomatoes scale, with 100% of the ‘Cream of the Crop’ critics reviewing it positively. It is by far the best-reviewed film of Anderson’s career.
I don’t disagree with those critics — on the contrary, I love the film — but I wonder why it’s this film and not, say, Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums that has garnered such praise. Is it because of a built-in forgiveness toward quality animated films or children’s films that elevates any of them that are different and better than the norm?
Because, in just about every way, this is truly a Wes Anderson film… full of the quirks, the aesthetics, the dry humor found in all of his movies. The same arch quality that has turned some people off of his other films is present in this one in spades. And yet he’s being applauded for doing with puppets what he’s done in live action for over a decade now.
I suspect part of the issue is some critics believe he’s treated his human actors too much like puppets in his previous films — considering them part of the mise-en-scene just as important as, but no more than, a perfect attendance pin or a Dalmatian mouse. Perhaps for those critics the real world collided a bit too much with the world of his films and the result was jarring, while Fantastic Mr. Fox requires no such suspension of disbelief.
I’ve never had that problem with Anderson’s films, not at all. I’ve adored most of them and found every one more and more rewarding with repeated viewings. And Fantastic Mr. Fox is no exception. I’m dying to see it again to pick up on the little moments that had me laughing out loud and smiling ear to ear the first time.
I’ve never bought into the criticism of Anderson’s work. Sure, I acknowledge that his films are studied and twee and earnest and arch and insular and a dozen other adjectives clever critics throw around to show they’re above it all. But none of that matters, for two main reasons. First, Anderson is a gifted director of actors, and has assembled a repertory group that truly shines in his films. Actors such as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Anjelica Huston bring a texture and depth to their characters that makes them anything but artificial. These are not puppets being manipulated on a stage but artists breathing life into fascinating and complex creations.
And second, Anderson’s films are funny as hell. I find it hard to level criticism at somebody who works so hard at making people laugh. His films are arty but they aren’t stuck-up… they are silly and fun and delightful in unexpected ways. Critics, save the sneers for Lars Von Trier… nobody needs to watch you piss in the punch bowl at this party.
OK, off my soap box and back to the movie at hand. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a big fan of Fantastic Mr. Fox. I love it for all of the things it does that Anderson has done so well in the past — the quirky humor, the lovely performances, the melancholy tone, the corny action beats. There is a lot in this movie that reminds me of Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, which is sloppy and lean on plot but one of the funniest and sweetest films I’ve ever seen. I don’t rank Fox as high as Bottle Rocket, but the films are definitely cousins (which one is Ash and which is Kristofferson, I’m not sure).
The voice acting here is superb. George Clooney is perfectly cast as the over-confident, supremely cocky Mr. Fox, who is aware of his shortcomings but not enough to do anything about them. Meryl Streep is predictably effective in her role as his wife, though she doesn’t have as many scenes as I’d like. Jason Schwartzman steals the show, as he usually does in Anderson’s films, as their attention-starved son Ash. I could listen to him deliver these lines all day. Only Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are as good at selling Anderson’s dialogue, and they are both in this film only briefly.
Fantastic Mr. Fox has a visual style that feels brand-new even as it uses techniques as old as the motion picture camera. I haven’t seen stop-motion animation of this sort since the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special I loved as a kid (and I hope my kids will love just as much once I grab it on DVD). But the movements are more fluid and the costuming and art direction so precise that it feels a bit like being inside a doll house come to life.
I don’t know yet where I’ll rank this film alongside Anderson’s other work. It’ll likely duke it out with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for the fourth spot. But I know for sure that I will own this sucker in a heartbeat and I will watch it and re-watch it, with or without my children.
I love that Gen X filmmakers such as Spike Jonze and Anderson are trying their hand at “family” films and bringing their own style and sensibility to the material. Stories for and about children tap into the most elemental emotions and provide for the right artists an opportunity to create something truly special. I can’t wait for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Giving Tree.