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The (Surprisingly) Real Feel of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

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The (Surprisingly) Real Feel of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

Movies

The (Surprisingly) Real Feel of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

The (Surprisingly) Real Feel of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120348665/120352750" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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George Clooney voices the titular Mr. Fox, who lives underground with his family and other four-legged friends. When Mr. Fox begins stealing food from a group of farmers, the repercussions have an effect on the entire creature community. Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

George Clooney voices the titular Mr. Fox, who lives underground with his family and other four-legged friends. When Mr. Fox begins stealing food from a group of farmers, the repercussions have an effect on the entire creature community.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Genre: Animated Comedy
  • Running Time: 87 minutes

Rated PG: Action, smoking and slang humor

With: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

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'Latin Roll Call'

'You Look Good'

'Sad House Guest'

Wes Anderson has a cult of worshippers, but I often find his films a little precious and mannered, a series of colorful dollhouses with people posed like puppets in the center of the frame. Now, in Fantastic Mr. Fox, he has made an animated film in which the puppets are so vivid they seem like people.

It's still the work of a filmmaker who likes to preen, a dandy. But it jells because the hero, the wily master thief Mr. Fox, is a dandy, too; he even wears double-breasted suits inspired by Anderson's own showy wardrobe. And it jells because the animation fits the story. Anderson opted to use stop-motion — the old-fashioned time-lapse animation that gave us both the 1933 King Kong and this year's sublime Coraline. So instead of the smooth, computerized feel of most modern animation, there's a slight jerkiness to the characters' movements that brings out their weight, their substance. I don't know how, but I felt as if the puppets themselves were taking pleasure in their own movements. Anderson's ultra-composed frames have never seemed so magically alive.

The script, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, embellishes Roald Dahl's brisk, cheerfully wicked kids' book, but the thrust is the same. Mr. Fox can't resist the challenge of stealing from his new neighbors, three nasty farmers named Boggis and Bunce and Bean — "one fat, one short, one lean." He pulls off three splendid capers, but doesn't reckon on the vindictiveness of the farmers — especially the skeletal Bean.

George Clooney does the voice of Mr. Fox, and at first I couldn't stop picturing his handsome mug. But Clooney is doing his best work in years — he even parodies his Ocean's Eleven master thief. Like his director, Mr. Fox is wonderfully precise. As he assembles a team of animals to help him fight the farmers who've laid siege to his underground hideaway, he calls them by their English and their Latin names.

The soundtrack contains tunes from the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, but also Burl Ives, Mozart, and "Ol' Man River" — disjunctive, but then the whole movie is disjunctive, like the cultural bric-a-brac in Anderson's teeming brain. You'll find your eyes roaming the frames and laughing at the flourishes and textures, at symmetry that's slightly unbalanced so the screen is a seesaw. There are gags so ingenious they'd have made Bugs Bunny director Chuck Jones gasp.

The actors bring their own kind of wit: Bill Murray as a militant badger, Michael Gambon as creepy Bean, Wally Wolodarsky as Mr. Fox's nervous opossum sidekick and best of all Willem Dafoe as a hep-cat, knife-wielding rat security guard. Meryl Streep is the sharp, practical Mrs. Fox, who at one point slaps her reckless husband's face. You don't see stuff that serious in many animated family films.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is weighed down by a serious motif that runs through Anderson's work: the son who tries desperately to forge a bond with his unappreciative father. Mr. Fox's boy Ash (Jason Schwartzman) doesn't have his dad's athletic prowess, and he's hurt when Mr. Fox sees a chip-off-the-old-block in his cousin. Problem is, Ash is a bit of a drag, and his efforts to prove himself are the movie's lone concession to formula. A small price to pay.

For all the engineering behind Fantastic Mr. Fox, it still feels handmade, as if the artists were in the room, manipulating everything onscreen. When it ended, I wished they'd come out and take a bow: animation director Mark Gustafson, cinematographer Tristan Oliver, designer Nelson Lowry, the whole team. And of course Wes Anderson, who for the first time has a right to preen.