The painstaking process known as stop-motion animation has brought all kinds of things to life, from that big ape King Kong to the very British Wallace and Gromit, but in the playful and funny "Fantastic Mr. Fox" it goes those feats one better: It reanimates filmmaker Wes Anderson's career.
With George Clooney and Meryl Streep voicing the Foxes, the ultra-sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles of the vulpine world, this adaptation of the Roald Dahl tale does more than occupy its own particular space between the worlds of childhood and adults. It provides a pleasantly cerebral experience, exhilarating and fizzy, that goes to your head like too much Champagne.
Not since the memorable days of "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore" has it made sense to apply those words to Anderson. Though the director never lost his hard-core fans, his work had gotten hermetic, even stifling. With "Fantastic Mr. Fox" he's managed to be himself and still let some air into the room.
On the face of it, stop-motion animation is an unlikely vehicle to make this happen. It's a labor-intensive practice that involves the frame-by-frame manipulation of three-dimensional models, a process that's so much like watching paint dry that two or three seconds of film is considered a good day's work.
Yet this process was tonic for Anderson, allowing him to create his own very specific environment, complete with animal puppets that had real hair and wore spiffy corduroy jackets based on one of his own and an overall autumnal palette that had no use for the color green. He even found places for his usual cohort of actors, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, as voice talent.
Working with co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach on the droll Dahl novel, a childhood favorite of the director's as well as the first book he owned, allowed Anderson to connect with a congenial sensibility and to expand on the plot. He finds space, for instance, for the odd diversion like "whack-bat," a complex game no one can understand, as well as the dysfunctional family dynamics of which he is especially fond.
The basic thrust of the book, however, remains the same, and that is the battle of wits between the larcenous title character and the combined forces of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who are not a pugnacious law firm but "three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers" in Mr. Fox's part of the world.
Mr. Fox is introduced doing pre-hunt calisthenics to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" by the Wellingtons, just one of the numerous eclectic artists, including Burl Ives, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Bobby Fuller Four, whose work enlivens the soundtrack.
Impending fatherhood forces Mr. Fox to seek less dangerous employment, and, in the elegant words of a British critic, he "forsakes thievery for journalism," ending up writing the Fox About Town column for a local paper called the Gazette. Feeling a midlife crisis coming on, Mr. Fox consults with Badger the lawyer (Murray) and moves the family from their safe hole to an exposed beech tree. And, working with Kylie the opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), an old partner in crime, he plans that gangster movie staple, one last job, that will set him up for life. Or so he hopes.
Meanwhile the Fox's son, Ash (Schwartzman), is having problems of his own. Worried that he can't measure up to his father, he is further demoralized by the arrival of his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director's brother), a great athlete and a deep thinker.
As voiced by Clooney, Mr. Fox is indeed a tough act to follow. He's a suave James Bond type who is also given to typically Anderson-like metaphysical speculation on the order of "I think I have this thing where I need everyone to think I'm this quote-unquote fantastic Mr. Fox."
As that rumination indicates, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" runs the risk of sounding a little too arch, so having key characters being animals is a big help in keeping things grounded. Though he says, "I've got mixed feelings about that" as often as he can, Mr. Fox and his brood literally tear into their food like savage beasts. "I'm a wild animal and a husband and father" our hero declaims, and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" succeeds because of its ability to strike the right balance between those poles.
MPAA rating: PG for action, smoking and slang humor
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release