If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.
My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.
Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.
The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.
If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.
But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.
And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.
Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.
Final Score: A