[National Review Online; November 25, 2009]
It’s the little things that count. Director Wes Anderson has always been good with the little things, filling movies like Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) with extraordinary, eye-catching detail. In Fantastic Mr. Fox the things are littler than ever, as the tallest actor is only 18” high. This film is an example of stop-motion animation, in which tiny figures are photographed, moved a fraction of an inch, and photographed again. It takes 24 photos to create one second of smoothly-moving screen time, so this kind of animation represents an enormous amount of labor. Though computer animation has been the preferred medium for recent children’s films, this year’s Coraline is an example of stop-motion animation, and Nick Park’s charming Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) are examples of stop-action using models made of clay (“clay-mation”).
The story here comes from a novel by Roald Dahl, author of many popular, unsentimental—even somewhat dark—children’s books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. In Dahl’s telling, a certain Mr. Fox steals fowl and cider from three unpleasant farmers, whose names are Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. They decide to exterminate him, and reach the point of using bulldozers to scrape deep into his burrow. Starvation looms for Mr. Fox and his animal neighbors, who have been likewise driven from all sources of food. But Mr. Fox has the ingenious idea of digging even further, and finds a way into the farmers’ larders. All the animals are now happily fed in their subterranean town, while Mr. Fox’s enemies continue their futile watch at the original entrance to his burrow.
This isn’t much material to spin into a feature-length movie, so Wes Anderson and fellow screenplay writer, Noah Baumbach (who also assisted on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004), spread the story out a bit. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his wife (Meryl Streep) have a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and early in the story their nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), comes for a visit. At his wife’s request, Mr. Fox agrees to change his chicken-stealing ways, and the family moves from its underground home to a spacious tree trunk, and Mr. Fox becomes a newspaper columnist.
But he can’t quite resist the thrill of hunting his food, and with the aid of a spacey opossum, Kiley (Wally Wolodarsky), makes raids on the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. As in the book, the trio of farmers respond with shock-and-awe measures, knocking down the tree and dynamiting the hill on which it stood. Soon, all the burrowing animals of the neighborhood are hiding underground, terrified and starving. But thanks to the ingenuity of Mr. Fox, and the courage of Ash and Kristofferson, everything turns out very well.
The creatures, sets, props, and costumes are indeed fantastic; the level of detail is amazing. It is a surfeit of visual delight, and you only wish the film would halt from time to time so you could get a chance to take it all in. As expected, Wes Anderson is a genius with the little things.
It’s the big things that are the problem. The story just isn’t very interesting or moving, and it’s hard to like the central character. Mr. Fox is a thoroughgoing narcissist, barely aware of others’ existence, and apt to say things that are thoughtlessly cruel. At one point his wife even tells him, “I shouldn’t have married you.” For him, it’s as if other creatures exist only as props in the fantasy playhouse where he’s the star.
So he’s not just a loveable dreamer; he pushes the boundary from “fallible” to “unkind,” and that’s a serious step for a character (especially a father) to take. To make things right again at the end calls for some profound soul-searching and sincere repentance. But Mr. Fox doesn’t experience anything like that; there are just some belated expressions of love and appreciation, and things close with everyone doing a happy dance.
This toxic father figure is a recurring character for Anderson, and sometimes it’s possible to feel a sort of exasperated affection for him (Royal Tennenbaum in The Royal Tennenbaums) while other times it’s exasperation that predominates (Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic). The dramatic dilemma is that, if the character’s penitence is perfunctory or shallow, and that penitence is presented as satisfying the story needs, then all the hurt characters must, in retrospect, be shallow too. I think this is where Anderson has been losing his audience’s affection in more recent films, that the characters don’t seem real. He is fond also of peppering characters with odd personality traits, and that also contributes to the unreality. It’s one thing if a quirk emerges organically from an underlying personality, but an oversupply makes them seem gratuitous, inauthentic, like appliqués ironed onto an empty costume.
In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Anderson wonders why Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was such a popular success, while his film The Darjeeling Limited (2007) wasn’t. “Why did this India movie become a big hit and mine didn’t?” The movies have so little in common that it’s strange the question would even suggest itself. The obvious answer is that Slumdog told a compelling story, a big, messy, emotional tale with a plenty of romance and suspense. Anderson has been going the opposite direction, making odd, spare, droll, arrhythmic movies that don’t present much in the way of plot or action, and don’t gather much momentum. Anderson answers his own question: “I can take a subject that you’d think would be commercial and turn it into something that not a lot of people want to see.”
I was the only one out of our party of three who was disappointed, though, and it was the disappointment of high expectations. Parents planning to take children should know that the many fun and funny bits (my 9-year-old granddaughter laughed throughout) are interspersed with some dialogue that will be too subtle, over their heads. The only really regrettable element, from a parent’s point of view, is that the word “cuss” is employed as a substitute for certain obscenities, and it is used rather a lot, for example a reference to “cluster-cuss.” If that doesn’t faze you, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” will make for a fun outing over Thanksgiving weekend, and the technical brilliance of the film alone makes it worth the price of admission—it won’t look the same on TV. If you expect what you’ll be getting, you won’t be disappointed.