A month or so after indie auteur Spike Jonze’s iconoclastic take on Maurice Sendak’s beloved childhood classic Where the Wild Things Are hit theaters comes indie auteur Wes Anderson’s iconoclastic take on Roald Dahl’s beloved childhood classic Fantastic Mr. Fox. Cynical viewers could be forgiven for sensing a trend: thirtysomething nerd-hipsters doing postmodern spit-shines on their most cherished childhood memories. Whether we’ll soon see Sofia Coppola’s take on Harold and the Purple Crayon remains to be seen.
While there are marked similarities between Jonze’s Wild Things and Anderson’s Fox, there are clear differences as well. Both bear the unmistakable imprint of their writer-directors. Both serve as stand-alone works of art. However: Whereas Jonze is all about the id-driven life of the mind, Anderson is the ego-inspired formalist. Less of a primal scream pop-psychologist and more of a meticulous still-life painter, Anderson has created the more accessible of these picture-book-to-screen adaptations. Both films still play as much to adults as children, but Mr. Fox is definitely the kinder and gentler of the two.
For his inspiration, Anderson has chosen a lovely little fable from darkly humorous Brit Roald Dahl. For decades, Dahl’s books have proven tempting source material for adventurous filmmakers (Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches, Danny Devito’s Matilda, Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). It’s easy to see what attracted Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou).
Dahl’s story concentrates on a foxy chicken thief (voiced oh-so-suavely by George Clooney) who swears off mischief when his wife (Meryl Streep, Clooney’s perfect foil) gets pregnant. Now, years later, his audacious edge dulled by domesticity, Mr. Fox is semi-happily raising a geeky teenage son (Jason Schwartzman) and writing a newspaper column. Struck with something approximating a seven-year itch, Fox figures his family just needs some upward mobility in the form of a larger, fancier den. With the help of his lawyer (Bill Murray in badger form), Fox finds the perfect home—a lovely hillock topped with a large tree (modeled after an actual tree on Dahl’s estate). Unfortunately, the tree is located directly across a field from the three largest farms in the county. The ready placement of these tempting targets lures Fox back into his old life of crime.
The Wind in the Willows-meets-Ocean’s Eleven connection is obvious and dealt with in a winking manner, with Fox assembling a crew of mismatched animal companions and crafting an elaborate plan to loot all three overstocked farms in one fell swoop. Expectedly, Fox’s nighttime raid brings the wrath of the three nasty farm owners—Boggis, Bunce and Bean—down on Fox’s family and friends.
The visual aspects of Fantastic Mr. Fox are both stylistically striking and comfortingly familiar. Fox and his pals are sculpted in a lanky, angular manner that makes them look like Looney Tunes crossed with Picasso’s sketches of Don Quixote. To bring them to life, Anderson employs old-fashioned stop-motion animation of the type seen in those eternal Rankin-Bass holiday specials (not to mention Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas). No CGI here. The characters move in a slightly jerky manner, their fur ripples constantly (a side-effect animators call “boiling”), and yet the film looks roughly a hundred times more magical than the last five 3-D computer-animated films to hit theaters.
What’s most amazing is that—despite the presence of talking animals and Ray Harryhausen-style animation—Fantastic Mr. Fox is unmistakably the work of Wes Anderson. Put it alongside Bottle Rocket or Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums and you’ll find the same dry wit, the same obsessive attention to detail, the same burnished, late-summer color scheme. Anderson was, I suspect, the sort of kid who drew impossibly elaborate architectural plans for his neighborhood tree fort. That attitude—both visionary and painstaking—serves him well here.
There are lessons to be had, mostly about being true to yourself, but they’re delivered in a easy, utterly organic manner. The enduring impression here is one of style, sophistication and simplicity. Throw in plenty of whimsy and wit and add that unfettered sense imagination you had as a child, and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind family classic.