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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'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Many of the late Roald Dahls acclaimed books for young readers have been made into films - among them Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach. The latest book to reach the screen is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the first animated film directed by Wes Anderson, whos best known for his features Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Film Critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 The Fantastic Mr. Fox, he has made an animated film in which the puppets are so vivid they seem like people. Its still the work of a filmmaker who likes to preen, a dandy. But it gels because the hero, the wily master thief Mr. Fox, is a dandy too. He even wears double-breasted suits inspired by Andersons own showy wardrobe, and it gels because the animation fits the story.

Anderson opted to use stop-motion the old-fashioned time-lapse animation that gave us King Kong and this years sublime Coraline. So instead of the smooth, computerized feel of most modern animation, theres a slight jerkiness to the characters movements that brings out their weight, their substance. I dont know how, but I felt as if the puppets themselves were taking pleasure in their own movements. Andersons ultra-composed frames have never seemed so magically alive.

The script, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, embellishes Roald Dahls brisk and cheerfully wicked kids book, but the thrust is the same. Mr. Fox cant 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 doesnt reckon on the vindictiveness of the farmers, especially the skeletal Bean. George Clooney does the voice of Mr. Fox, and at first I couldnt stop picturing his handsome mug. But Clooney is doing his best work in years. He even parodies his Oceans 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 have laid siege to his underground hideaway, he calls them by their English and Latin names.

(Soundbite of movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Mr. Fox) All right. Lets start planning. (unintelligible) short-hand. Great. Linda (unintelligible) you got some dry paper? Here we go. Mole (unintelligible), what do you got?

Mr. JAMES HAMILTON (Actor): (As Mole) I can see in the dark?

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Thats incredible. We can use that. Linda?

Ms. KAREN DUFFY (Actor): (As Linda Otter) Got it.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible)

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) You bet you are. Linda?

Ms. DUFFY: (As Linda Otter) Got it.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Beaver (unintelligible)

Mr. STEVEN M. RALES (Actor): (As Beaver) I can chew threw wood.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Amazing, Linda?

Ms. DUFFY: (As Linda Otter) Got it.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Badger (unintelligible)

Mr. BILL MURRAY (Actor): (As Badger) Demolitions expert.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) What? Says when?

Mr. MURRAY: (As Badger) Explosions, flames, burning things.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Demolitions expert. Okay, Linda?

Ms. DUFFY: (As Linda Otter) Got it.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Weasel.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Stop yelling!

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Mr. Fox) Alright, Ash, if you get these little kids organized and put together some kind of KP unit or something to keep this sewer clean, its good for moral.

Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN (Actor): (As Ash) Done, whats KP?

Mr. DUFFY: (As Linda Otter) I think it means janitors.

EDELSTEIN: After the Beach Boys on the soundtrack come Burl Ives, Mozart, the Rolling Stones and Ol Man River disjunctive, but then the whole movies disjunctive, like the cultural bric-a-brac in Wes Andersons teeming brain. Youll find your eyes roaming the frames and laughing at the flourishes and textures, at symmetry thats slightly unbalanced so the screen is a seesaw. There are gags so ingenious theyd 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. Foxs 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 husbands face. You dont see stuff that serious in many animated family films. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is weighted down by a serious motif, one that runs through all Andersons work - the son who desperately tries to forge a bond with his unappreciative father.

Mr. Foxs boy Ash, Jason Schwartzman, doesnt have his dads athletic prowess, and hes hurt when Mr. Fox sees a chip off the old block in his cousin. The problem is, Ash is a bit of a drag and his efforts to prove himself are the movies lone concession to formula. A small price to pay. With all the engineering behind The Fantastic Mr. Fox, it still feels handmade, as if the artists were in the room, manipulating everything onscreen. When it ended, I wished theyd 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.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: FRESH AIR has a beautiful new addition to its family. Our producer Sam Briger and his wife Katriona(ph) had a baby yesterday named Hazel Rose. Weve seen a picture and its clear shes going to be as much of a charmer as her brother Oliver. We cant wait to meet her.

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