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Fur flies on 'Mr. Fox'

October 11, 2009|Chris Lee

LONDON — To be clear, Wes Anderson did not set out to direct his new movie via e-mail.

Even if that's precisely how the writer-director's stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -- a jaunty visual joy ride that features voice characterizations by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman -- ultimately came to be, Anderson never intended to become an in-box auteur.

That choice was made all but inevitable, however, by the Oscar nominee's unorthodox decision to hole up in Paris for most of the shoot's one-year duration while principal photography commenced across the English Channel at London's venerable Three Mills Studios. He wasn't working on another project, and nothing Paris-centric demanded he be there; Anderson simply "didn't want to be at Three Mills Studios for two years."

The move did little to endear Anderson to his subordinates. "It's not in the least bit normal," director of photography Tristan Oliver observed at the production's East London set last spring, when production on "Mr. Fox" was about three-quarters complete. "I've never worked on a picture where the director has been anywhere other than the studio floor!"

Moreover, Anderson had no idea that his ignorance of stop-motion (the animation technique in which a stationary object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames) and exacting ideas concerning the film's look would so exasperate his crew.

"Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable," the film's director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. "I probably shouldn't say that."

Reached by phone in Paris this summer, a day after production had wrapped, Anderson, 40, sounded taken aback when informed of his underlings' grumbling. To hear it from the Houston native, a self-described "novice" in stop-motion, he ignored the majority viewpoint in pursuit of something specific: a cool-looking, detail-saturated, retro-leaning stop-motion movie. Even if that meant bucking conventional animation wisdom by avoiding the modern technology that pervades the genre these days.

"It's not the most pleasant thing to force somebody to do it the way they don't want to do it," Anderson said. "In Tristan's case, what I was telling him was, 'You can't use the techniques that you've learned to use. I'm going to make your life more difficult by demanding a certain approach.'

"The simple reality is," Anderson continued, "the movie would not be the way I wanted it if I just did it the way people were accustomed to doing it. I realized this is an opportunity to do something nobody's ever seen before. I want to see it. I don't want afterward to say, 'I could have gone further with this.' "

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Targeting adults

With its autumnal palette, woodland tableaux and fur-covered puppets, "Mr. Fox's" conspicuously handmade style of stop-motion represents a departure from the computer-enhanced slickness of Henry Selick's critically hailed "Coraline" and yet is several large steps more refined than Adult Swim's "Robot Chicken."

Tonally, "Mr. Fox" shares the most with another children-targeted movie coming out this fall, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." Although both films are nominally intended for kids, their central themes, art direction and dramatic dialogue seem more intended to connect with grown-ups; specifically, the kind of urban sophisticates who compose Anderson's and Jonze's core fan base. That neither-fish-nor-fowl quality presents a challenge to marketers for both movies.

"It's got to be a movie for kids because it's based on a children's book," said Anderson. "It's an adventure. And I feel it's like the kind of movie I would have been interested in as a kid. At the same time, it doesn't cater to children. I guess it's for whole families."

"Mr. Fox," made on a medium-size budget, will make its North American debut at the AFI Fest's opening night at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Oct. 30 and go into theatrical release next month. Befitting its title, the Fox Searchlight-distributed movie expands upon the fantastical narrative template set by Dahl's 1970 illustrated children's classic.

After a scrape with death, the maverick livestock thief and self-professed "wild animal" Mr. Fox (Clooney) promises his wife, Mrs. Fox (Streep), that he'll settle down and be more present for their oddball son, Ash (Schwartzman). But the lure of stealing chickens, ducks and hard apple cider from nearby farms proves irresistible to Foxey, who secretly comes out of retirement. The angry farmers whose stock Fox has been pillaging, meanwhile, cook up a scheme to put the kibosh on his antics once and for all -- resulting in Fox (and those he loves most) retreating underground as fugitives.

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