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A production that's crazy like a fox : Look carefully into the foxhole of director Wes Anderson's latest and you'll see nods to his work and more.

November 13, 2009|Chris Lee

LONDON — A self-described "total novice" in stop-motion animation, Wes Anderson severely tested the patience of his crew of stop-motion top guns by forgoing many of the most modern animation methods and new innovations in the genre to give his family thriller "Fantastic Mr. Fox" what he calls a more "rudimentary" feel.

But even while exasperating his underlings -- "He has made our lives miserable," director of animation Mark Gustafson said on the movie's London set last spring -- Anderson's aesthetic mandate had an unexpected upshot. The indie auteur responsible for "The Royal Tennenbaums," "Rushmore" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" was able to cram almost every scene with a staggering number of in-jokes, self-referential flourishes and visual nods to his other movies. Stuff his hard-core fans are bound to get a kick out of.

Reached by phone in Paris last summer, shortly after production wrapped, Anderson defended the insular flourishes as a simple choice of preference rather than some kind of ego trip. "I wasn't thinking of anything self-referential," he said. "This is the kind of thing I like. So it ends up being self-referential."

Take the distinctive, rust-colored, wide-wale corduroy suit that master poultry thief Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) wears throughout the film. Anderson got the material from his tailor and personally saw to such touches as the stitching, buttons and trouser length.

"His attention to detail is amazing," said Andy Gent, the movie's models supervisor, amid the bustle of the film's "puppet hospital," where the animated characters (most of which were around 16 inches tall) were built and repaired. "The cut of the costumes, he lavished time looking through and approving them."

If those blue pajamas worn by Mr. Fox's nephew Kristofferson (the voice of Anderson's brother Eric) look at all familiar, you've probably seen the director's picaresque 2007 road movie "The Darjeeling Limited." In that film, Adrien Brody can be seen sporting an identical outfit.

And the chef character Rabbit in "Mr. Fox" isn't wearing orange Crocs by accident. The foam resin shoes are a wardrobe staple of celebrity chef (and Anderson pal) Mario Batali, who provides Rabbit's voice.

As well, the director's input extended all the way down to the apple-print house dress worn by Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and her choice of hobbies. "She paints thunderstorms," said producer Allison Abbate. "They're based on this painter Wes likes, John Steuart Curry."

To fully realize "a Wes Anderson film with puppets" -- what crew member after crew member working at London's Three Mills Studios cited as a specific goal -- production designer Nelson Lowry became a scholar of the director's filmography, covering the walls of his office with movie stills and scrutinizing them in an effort to "crack the code, find the elements that made up the look."

"There are a lot of the signature things Wes does," Lowry explained. "He always shows a character in his underwear. So we have Ash" -- Mr. Fox's oddball son, voiced by Jason Schwartzman -- "in his underwear in a great scene where [the characters] get flushed into a sewer."

Moreover, unlike most modern animation, in which crazy camera angles and wild landscapes abound, the "Mr. Fox" filmmakers blocked most scenes around the dialogue, in a manner Lowry likened to "a dry adult drama" -- but in a way that's completely of a piece with Anderson's previous movies.

"The framing would be the thing," Lowry continued. "You can almost transpose the framing from our film on to his other films and you would see the characters sitting in the same positions."

For the movie's director of photography, Tristan Oliver, Anderson's dizzying attention to detail and impulse to infuse "Mr. Fox" with personal touches weren't an issue.

But Oliver, a veteran of such films as "Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Chicken Run" with stop-motion whiz Nick Park, took exception with Anderson's unorthodox choice to direct most of "Mr. Fox" via e-mail from his apartment in Paris.

"I've done two features with Nick Park. He is as picky. But he's always on the studio floor. So that level of pickiness never became an irritation," Oliver said in London last spring. "That's part of the working day. Whereas here, you'll try to get something right. It'll go back. It'll be wrong. The feedback is blind, essentially."

Anderson and Oliver later smoothed over their differences. And the director has no regrets about his first, highly personal stab at stop-motion animation.

"There's been so much labor that went into getting this just right," Anderson said. "I'm not saying it was a walk in the park. But once we figured out how to go about it, we got it done."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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