Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Click here for inspiration on making this the centerpiece of a fun themed Family Movie Night.

In many ways, Roald Dahl and Wes Anderson's storytelling sensibilities seem diametrically opposed. Where Dahl favors surface conflicts of heroes triumphing over villains, Anderson prefers ponderous tales of crumbling families and interpersonal angst. Where Dahl's characters are morally black-and-white, slotting cleanly into archetypes of pure saint-like heroes and nasty irredeemable villains, Anderson paints with a more nuanced brush, with few saints but no one beyond redemption.

Here, in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's expansive and multilayered adaptation of Dahl's brief and intimate fable, the two storytellers' idiosyncrasies clash together to create beautiful sparks, a film that in many ways seems a loving parody and send-up of both artists' tendencies. The childlike worldview of Dahl's stories is treated with glib sardonicism by Anderson's jaded characters, while Anderson's pervasive indie quirk and mumblecore sensitivities are rendered absurd by Dahl's whimsical setting. It is in this juxtaposition that Fantastic Mr. Fox finds its magic.

In its own way, Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson's urbanization of Dahl's decidedly rural backwoods fairy tale, even as it explores themes of literal urbanization and the predatory encroachment of capitalism on traditional rural communities and lifestyles. At its core, this story is the tale of the urbanization of Mr. Fox himself, a self-professed wild animal who pines for the self-actualizing hunting and scavenging lifestyle that he has been forced to trade in for modern domestic safety and convenience. Foxy goes through an animal midlife crisis of sorts. He's voiced indelibly by George Clooney, and it is no coincidence that once again Clooney's character finds himself carrying out a "one last big heist" plot. But the farmers that Foxy targets here aren't the smalltime squab raisers he and his wife Felicity poached from back in the day: these are the industrial farm complexes of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, the gluttonous personifications of capitalist urbanization. They have taken over these woods and will not tolerate Foxy's upset of the bourgeois system. Despite the utter lack of impact Foxy's heists have on the farmers' capital, they decide to make an example of him and the rest of the forest animals, stealing their land and tearing apart their homes with bulldozers.

Ultimately, Foxy and co. are able to eke out some small triumph and regain some degree of their former existence, it is true, but Mr. Fox is forced to abandon his dreams of an idealized rural life in a pine tree in favor of the new metal-and-cement box he and his family have been forced into. He is still able to exercise his roguish desires by stealing from Boggis, Bunce, and Bean's grocery superstore, but now he is subsisting not on fresh killed chickens and produce but on artificial processed products ripped out of cardboard boxes. All this goes toward making the proceedings sound awfully bleak, but this is not so. This is a Wes Anderson joint, after all, and one of the auteur's greatest strengths is taking the bleak and making it seem whimsical.

In a 2002 New York Times piece called "Welcome to the Dahl House", Anderson recounts visiting the historic home of Roald Dahl during his early conception of the film. He describes with glee his experience of spending time in Dahl's thatch-roofed "writing hut" where the author composed most of his classic stories, and which has become something of a privately curated museum of little Roald Dahl curios. This all tracks as something that Anderson would love, as the filmmaker has always had an obsession with memorabilia and minutia. Anderson's a sucker for nostalgia, and there's nothing more nostalgic than a Roald Dahl story. The film's aggressively warm-toned color pallet heightens this sense of coziness as much as its autumnal vibe reinforces the themes of transition and twilight in a man's life and in a society.

This film is Anderson's first foray into the realm of stop motion, but it fits him like a glove. Anderson has always treated his mise-en-scene like a little diorama, an immaculately arranged dollhouse within which to manipulate and maneuver his actors like toys. It only makes sense that he would feel right at home when the actors are replaced by actual dolls, the sets with actual dioramas. The obsessively detailed puppets look like nothing so much as playful taxidermies. This movie is unmistakably, quintessentially Anderson in its aesthetics. This in fact might be Anderson at his most visually Anderson, almost self-referentially so. There is a peculiar two-dimensionality to the cinematography, as if Anderson and animation director Mark Gustafson are deliberately confronting the artificiality of the concept of a foreground and background in animation. All that to say, it looks completely unlike any other stop motion animated film, and it looks great.

It sounds great, too. Anderson curates a soundtrack composed of 60s proto-prog deep cuts and obscure retro Disney samples, adding to the antique shop feel of the film. This soundtrack wonderfully compliments the original score by Alexandre Desplat, one of the composer's best (and that's saying something). Desplat echoes the rural aesthetics of the animation in his arrangements, centering folk instruments like jaw harp and banjo, giving the film a unique and instantly recognizable sound. The compositions ooze magic, from fairy tale whimsy to triumphant climactic swells, all while keeping tongue slyly tucked in cheek, befitting Anderson's gentle deconstruction of childhood fantasy.

This is a grown man's pondering on a formative children's story, and grown-ups are just as likely to find it clever and wise as children are to find it enchanting.

Block or Report

M.W. liked these reviews