I don’t have kids, but if I did I would imagine that it can be sometimes brutal to have to take your kid to “family” films, as most of them seem to be punishment for adults, a recurring reminder that you should have used better birth control. Today I saw trailers for an Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel and Dwayne Johnson in The Tooth Fairy, either of which could be used as advertisements for vasectomies. But then there are films, which could be called “family” films, in that they are animated and appeal to children, that transcend being cartoons and delight all age groups. Most of them are made by Pixar, but now we can add the idiosyncratic genius Wes Anderson to the list.
Of course, Anderson is not an animator by trade. He is a cinematic miniaturist, a spinner of tales that exist in a whimsical world of his own making, set to a soundtrack from a playlist of a college radio station, with title cards that announce what is about to happen. Usually his films are about fathers and sons. This is all true in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but in this case the source material is a children’s book by Roald Dahl. I haven’t read the book, but I have the feeling that what’s on screen is very little Dahl and a whole lot of Wes Anderson.
The title character is a fox who specializes, as most foxes do, in stealing poultry. When his Mrs. tells him he’s about to become a father, she makes him promise to find a less dangerous living. He becomes a newspaper columnist (I await the DVD so I can freeze-frame his columns, because they appear to be fully written) and his son, Ash, is an oddball who aspires to be a great athlete like his dad. When a cousin, Kristofferson, arrives (that name couldn’t be from Dahl), Ash finds out that he’s outclassed in every way.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fox can’t resist heeding the call of his nature and with an opossum as a sidekick, endeavors to rob food from each of three human farmers nearby. One of them, Mr. Bean, is a vicious gun enthusiast who makes it his mission to retaliate, and drives the foxes, as well as all of the other woodland creatures, deep underground. As Bugs Bunny used to say, “This means war.”
This film is a constant delight, full of the eccentric details that populate Anderson films. This is apparent immediately, when we see at the opening the cover of Dahl’s book, but with the tell-tale label on the spine that indicates it’s a library book. The animation is old-fashioned stop-motion, so it’s not as slick as computer-generated stuff, but it reeks of charm. The “sets” are like dollhouses created by obsessive shut-ins, with bric-a-brac by the truckload. Would anyone beside Wes Anderson imagine that a fox would have a train set? He even invents rules for a sport played by animals, and gives us the Latin names for all of the creatures.
Beyond the whimsy, the script, written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, packs both suspense and heart. The showdown between Fox and a drawling rat who seems to have seen West Side Story too many times is as gripping as anything I’ve seen this year (and Fox’s line after the fight: “Redemption, yes, but in the end he’s just a dead rat in a trash pail outside a Chinese restaurant” could have been written by Raymond Chandler). The heart comes from the love between Fox and his long-suffering wife. Helpfully, he psychoanalyzes himself and explains why he does the thing that he does, perhaps a first in animated film history (basically, it’s because he’s a wild animal). Then there’s the relationship between Fox and Ash, which to me is better than Kevin Costner asking his father if he wants a catch.
Normally I’m unimpressed by celebrity voice-actors in animated films, wondering why they went to all the trouble to basically get radio performances. But George Clooney as Mr. Fox is a perfect choice. His voice is recognizable enough that we can picture him, if not his actual face then at least the spirit of Clooney performances past, particularly Danny Ocean, while we watch Mr. Fox hatch a scheme. And I love his trademark, a whistle followed by a tsk-tsk sound, that may be imitated by many, unconsciously or not. Meryl Streep is fine as Mrs. Fox, although she has less to do, and Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Willem Dafoe, and particularly Michael Gambon as mean Mr. Bean fill out a wonderful cast.
As for whether this film works for kids, I can only judge by my fellow audience members who were knee-high or smaller. Most of them watched in rapt attention, and one tyke told his father that “this was my favorite movie ever.” Hear, hear, kid.