The title mammal of Fantastic Mr. Fox often punctuates his remarks with a jaunty little whistle-click-click combination, to emphasize his devil-may-care attitude. When his opossum sidekick asks about the habit, Mr. Fox replies, “That’s my trademark!” For a footloose rascal and self-described “wild animal,” Mr. Fox seems suspiciously image-conscious, as if he’s trying to live up to an ideal of himself.
The films of Wes Anderson, director of Fantastic Mr. Fox, contain more bells, whistles and trademarks than you could count on one paw. With his reasonably naturalistic debut, Bottle Rocket, Anderson established his fondness for deadpan comedy and the transcendent power of obscure 1960s and ’70s pop songs. Since then, his childhood-obsessed cinematic settings have become increasingly artificial, at once lovely and fussed-over, like intricate models or shop windows. Rather than break out of Andersonville and into the real world, the filmmaker burrows further into the fantasy realm with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Ironically, Anderson’s latest turns out to be his most heartfelt, human movie since Rushmore, despite its cast of woodland beasts.
Like gentleman burglars, Anderson and co-scripter Noah Baumbach take liberties with Roald Dahl’s original book. A middle-class family man, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) suffers a midlife crisis as he chafes at his boring newspaper job and longs for his reckless youth as a poultry thief. Against the advice of his attorney/badger (Bill Murray), he moves his family to the base of a commanding tree, where he plans to raid the nearby land of farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Thanks to the casting of Clooney, the film’s breezy capers suggest Ocean’s Eleven recast with Beatrix Potter critters.
Anderson’s films usually involve fraught father-son dynamics. Here, Mr. Fox’s sullen 12-year-old son Ash (Jason Schartzman) resents the attention his father showers on athletic nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson). Rather than milk Ash’s unhappiness for sympathy, the film presents him as a gradually likable grump with his own integrity. Worse problems come when Mr. Fox’s heists require him to deceive his wise wife (Meryl Streep), and then incur the wrath of the farmers, particularly the ruthless Bean (Michael Gambon). Soon enough, the farmers dig up the hill with cranes while the Rolling Stones commandeer the soundtrack.
Fantastic Mr. Fox unquestionably looks like the kind of escapist toyland Anderson’s usual characters covet. The English countryside deliberately resembles the landscapes of a tabletop train set, while ant farms probably inspired the cutaway shots of Mr. Fox and his friends digging subterranean tunnels. Stop-motion filmmaker Henry Selick, who created Anderson’s fictional sea animals for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, opted to make Coraline instead of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the character animation proves somewhat primitive compared to Selick’s work. The stop-motion puppets have limited expressiveness and sometimes, in close-up, uncomfortably resemble actual taxidermy animals.
Anderson more than makes up that potential shortcoming through the film’s witty voice acting, snappy editing and lovely, autumnal design. Most contemporary kid’s movies feel polished within an inch of their lives, but Fantastic Mr. Fox looks fresh, textured and personal in all the best ways. Where Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are offered a meditation on the complex emotions of childhood, Fantastic Mr. Fox offers audiences of all ages a quirky, accessible tale without compromising his idiosyncratic vision. Some of the irony will go over children’s heads, but they’ll probably love the film’s precision-tuned slapstick and musical interludes from the likes of the Beach Boys and Burl Ives. A great running joke substitutes the word “cuss” for actual profanity — “Are you cussin’ with me?”
Fantastic Mr. Fox suggests Anderson has finally arrived at a place he’s been trying to reach for the past decade: a nostalgic land of mischief and music, where rivals reconcile and family members renew affections, even if they happen to be predatory quadrupeds who live in holes in the ground. But how will the director go back to live-action now that he’s been down to the animated farm? Anderson may have outfoxed himself.