The first moment we see Mr. Fox, a notorious chicken thief and loving husband, he is sauntering up the road. He stands on two legs, and wears a dapper suit elegantly tailored against his thin frame. It is fall in Mr. Fox’s world, and golden light permeates everything around him. He looks like nothing less but the epitome of the charming, slightly off-kilter illustrations in the novel version of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," by Roald Dahl. Were Dahl living, I thought, he would be pleased.
And never has director Wes Anderson’s trademark wryness been better served.
Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman
"Fantastic Mr. Fox," for those who have not read it, is the story of the Fox family. Mr. Fox (George Clooney), upon learning his wife (Meryl Streep) is pregnant, gives up his life of crime to become a newspaperman. His son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is small and sullen, and has taken to wearing a cape. He like any other father facing middle-age; he’s happy and content, but misses his adventurous youth. After he moves to a tree in the shadow of the three meanest farmers in the county, his mid-life crisis allows him to be drawn once again into thievery.
The first thought that comes is astonishment that no one has thought of using George Clooney as a voice actor before; perhaps he was waiting for the right character to stroll up the road, the way Mr. Fox does ever so delicately in the first scene. His smooth voice is filled with humor and warmth, his delivery is that of a slightly pretentious gentleman of leisure. Streep is similarly wonderful as the earth-mother Mrs. Fox.
Compared with the smooth, soulless version of "A Christmas Carol" that recently came out, Anderson and his animation crew have created something scruffy, wild and clever. While computer animators spend their time working constantly to improve the "realism" of the thing they are making, stop-motion has no such intentions. Stop-motion is not about mimicking reality, but rather creating an alternative to it, where badgers are lawyers and foxes wear cunning corduroy suits. The stunning effect is like watching Roald Dahl’s slightly cracked imagination come to life. The form also translates Anderson’s vision well; his diversions into dollhouse-like set design and quirky bon-mots come off as fun and lovely instead of cloying like it does in some of his live-action films.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" isn’t a blockbuster. It isn’t meant to be Oscar bait, or a techie’s vanity project. It’s just meant to be small and strange and impeccable, like Mr. Fox’s suit. Mr. Fox may not be flesh and blood. He may not be perfectly smoothed and airbrushed with computers. But he is more real, and more true that many of the films I’ve seen this year. And that is pretty fantastic.