Wes Anderson Covers New Ground With 'Mr. Fox'

Wes Anderson on the set of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' i i

hide captionWes Anderson manipulates puppets on the set of Fantastic Mr. Fox, preparing them for the next frame.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Wes Anderson on the set of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'

Wes Anderson manipulates puppets on the set of Fantastic Mr. Fox, preparing them for the next frame.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director Wes Anderson has worked on a lot of film projects, but with his latest picture, Fantastic Mr. Fox, he ventured into new territory. It's the first time Anderson has made an animated feature.

Based on the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of a slick, well-bred fellow (voiced by George Clooney) who swears off stealing from three rich farmers after becoming a parent — but who can't entirely control his sticky fingers.

Anderson created the film in stop-motion, in which the objects in front of the camera — puppets, in this case — are repositioned just slightly in between each frame. When the film is played back at speed, the puppets appear to move fluidly on their own, as in a flip book. Though Anderson says that stop-motion animation is the most involved film-making he's ever done, he also says that the process of bringing the characters to life has "a sort of magic."

Anderson's other films include The Royal Tennenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. He joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to talk about his affection for the story of Mr. Fox, about the unexpected challenges of stop-motion work, and about his idiosyncratic moviemaking style.

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

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) i i

hide captionGeorge 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
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep)

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

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.

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