Fantastic Mr. Fox Dir. Wes Anderson

[20th Century Fox; 2009]

Wes Anderson’s combination of wit and inventive animation may be nothing new, but the big question surrounding his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox is this: Would the filmmaker's tendency to overwork facial reactions and overdose on twee dialogue weigh down the classic tale? Luckily, it doesn't — and it's partially due to George Clooney's Mr. Fox, whose personae thankfully avoids the irony of Anderson’s past leading men. Anderson seems to realize that over-embellishment would ruin the story's simplicity, so he relies instead on the team of animators to turn his visions into cute and engrossing facial movements that do more to tell the story of Fantastic Mr. Fox than any self-aware dialogue would ever achieve.

The story revolves around Clooney’s Mr. Fox, the best chicken robber-turned-newspaper columnist around. Joined in joyous matrimony with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), the pair give up thievery in pursuit of a happy family life with the birth of their cub, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). When his new life as a columnist dissatisfies him, Mr. Fox declares it the perfect time to secretly renew his old habits by stealing the goods of his human neighbors Bean, Boggis, and Bunce with the help of his super and confidant, Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), and his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson). Of course, things quickly go awry and the farmers seek revenge on Mr. Fox and the wildlife at large.

Bolstered by the ancillary voice work of Bill Murray as a badger-lawyer and Willem Dafoe as a rat-henchman, Fantastic Mr. Fox unfurls as a great mix of clever dialogue, snappy delivery, and Anderson’s trademark wit without wavering from the film’s ultimate goal: keeping the kids' attention. The tale of Mr. Fox’s reversion into a life of crime and a village of wildlife on the run from spurned farmers (led by Michael Gambon’s Franklin Bean) allows Anderson to take a large step back and allow the voice acting and screenplay tell the story.

However, the voice work in Fantastic Mr. Fox varies in quality. Meryl Streep is wasted as Mrs. Fox, reduced to a stereotypical nag and worrywart as Mr. Fox digs the forest’s animals into a deeper mess. The animation goes a long way to convey emotion, but Streep is a much livelier actress in the flesh than in the fur. Clooney, despite his emotive voice, feels overbearing and forced, leaving the voice work of Wolodarsky (Kylie) and Eric Anderson (Kristofferson) as the standouts. Indeed, Wolodarsky’s portrayal of Clooney’s nocturnal sidekick is the perfect combination of childlike enthusiasm and adult silliness. His timing in response to Clooney’s readings is spot-on, and he's certain to be many children’s favorite character. Meanwhile, Eric Anderson’s even-keeled repose as Jason Schwartzman’s foil is superb, showing how Fantastic Mr. Fox is strongest when the pair is in the spotlight.

But the true measuring stick of Fantastic Mr. Fox lies in how kid-friendly it is. The animation is a wonderful throwback, bridging old, generational nostalgia for the holiday Claymation and stop-motion fare with modern technology. The fur of the animals bristles in the most natural ways, never neglecting that physics are always at work without burying the animation in too much movement to show off the technology. And while Anderson’s dialogue has adult overtones, the darker material is diluted enough to keep children invested in the story. If nothing else, Fantastic Mr. Fox serves as a palate cleanser for Wes Anderson fans burnt out from his recent output. The film is bare bones and perfectly paced, allowing the film snob to catalog the kitsch while our inner children enjoy the slapstick comedy and straightforward jokes. Indeed, Anderson is triumphant in Fantastic Mr. Fox because he is able to rein in his more obsessive tendencies and finally give into a little fun.

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