by TOM NIXON
The most interesting thing about Fantastic Mr. Fox, disappointingly, is that Wes Anderson decided to do a Roald Dahl adaptation in the first place. The idea of projecting Dahl’s escapist fantasies of grotesquery through the lens of Anderson’s too-close-for-comfort tragicomic ensemble dramas is an exciting one, especially as both like to mine the messy sprawl of family bonds for their respective brands of idiosyncrasy and both meticulously order their cluttered, off-beat scenarios in ways that instill personality above and beyond the characters. Ultimately though the film is less an intriguing blend than a fun little side project, more Anderson than Dahl and puzzlingly less mature for that; concerned as it is with being a cute little exercise in style, the film neglects Dahl’s relative darkness and its attempts at thorniness feel half-hearted and trivial.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) used to poach chickens, but after a promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) he’s taken to the straight and narrow. It’s been ten years and he’s settled down with a son and a 9-5 job as a newspaper columnist, but an inferiority complex slowly reveals itself amidst this neglect of his animal self – one seemingly passed on to son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), a stunted outcast skulking about in an effeminate cape desperate to live up to his father’s past glories. The inevitable release of frustration ironically leads Mr. Fox to buy the most civilized-looking tree in the area–but one on the outreaches of land owned by three notoriously evil farmers; Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Huge Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). He goes for one final, three-pronged chicken heist behind his wife’s back, seen as an opportunity for self-affirmation by Ash too whose deficiencies are being made abundantly clear by model cousin Kris Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson).
The bulk of the picture is concerned with the wild/civilized and normal/different dualisms within the self–the ways they become troublesome without balanced nurturing. Each of the foxes is a domestic archetype with a repressed twist, and that twist makes the slow transition from disruptive, disharmonious force to an essential characteristic of ‘fantastic’-ness once accepted and honed into a tool for fulfilling domestic responsibilities. This added existential layer (in the book the food is stolen primarily out of necessity) promises fascinating depths, but the characters make all the predictable stops at recklessness, redemption (though there’s one good moment where Mr. Fox scoffs at the value of such redemption), epiphany and the like as the family gets trapped underground and a battle of wits ensues, inviting the dreaded Pixar comparison in its comparatively formulaic, tell-don’t-show moralizing.
Thankfully there’s nothing black and white about the film’s stop-motion animation (something Anderson already dabbled in with The Life Aquatic…); it breathes with earthy colors and crisp textures, even if the foxes themselves are disquietingly dead in the eyes and jerky in their movements (they’re expressive, just not expressive enough to avoid looking like stuffed animals being expressive). The mise-en-scene is ordered to the most minute detail even in this medium, its sort-of-but-not-quite symmetry gushing identity, shot-by-shot bearing the unmistakable mark of the director. And digressive though it may be, a wolf’s appearance late on takes the breath away; a haunting, dizzy mirage of a shot that seems to come out of nowhere, closes the main thematic arcs and sort of makes the whole thing seem more worthwhile.
Shame then that the screenplay seems to rush through this environment; there’s not enough time for reflection in between the bursts of action, and moments of poignance seem to come and go without a notable change in pace. Much of the humor also contributes to the film’s inconsequential feel, from cringe-worthy dancing scenes to running gags like Mr. Fox’s trademark whistle, click and pose, which are made barely less juvenile in light of their self-referential conclusions. Gambon’s brilliant Bean is the funniest character in the piece and incidentally the most Dahlian, a ridiculous supervillain caricature to whom two other ridiculous supervillain caricatures nervously defer.
From the generally positive response I infer that a lot of critics are besotted enough with Anderson’s style to look past the film’s inconsistencies and relative slightness–and there’s no doubt that whilst it’s minor Wes, it is still Wes. But, tempting as it is to suggest that the film’s awkward mix of kiddie comedy with a largely unfulfilled desire to delve into more serious issues is the perfect fit for a fox whose roguish impulse clashes with familial responsibility and sacrifice, the reality is that the clash is disconnecting especially when coupled with these, well, creepy looking foxes—and besides, there isn’t really much to connect to. It lacks emotional heft, and that’s an accusation you could rarely level at Anderson (or Dahl, for that matter) before now. Watch it, I guess, for its looks, its sounds (the voice-acting is top-drawer – other personnel involved include Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, even Wes Anderson himself), its few good jokes and quirks; just don’t expect it to leave any lasting impression.
2 1/2 stars