Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Mr. Fox: George Clooney
Mrs. Fox: Meryl Streep
Ash: Jason Schwartzman
Badger: Bill Murray
Kylie: Wally Wolodarsky
Kristopherson: Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean: Michael Gambon
Rat: Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip: Owen Wilson
Petey: Jarvis Cocker

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Based on the book by Roald Dahl. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG (for action, smoking, and slang humor).

Almost every year in the Best Animated Short category of the Academy Awards there is a stop-motion entry, and I always want to see it. There is something about stop-motion animation that is mysterious. It must have something to do with the fact that some of the filmmaking process is left up there on the screen, unhidden from the audience’s scrutiny. Sometimes there are fingerprints of the puppeteers visible in the clay. With hairy characters, the fur is never quite the same from shot to shot. Whatever it is, there is a fascination created by the format.

Director Wes Anderson’s fascination with the format was first observed in his live action film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” in some stop-motion animation used for some undersea shots and one live action shot that showed Zissou’s boat’s interior in cross-section. Cross-section shots are used extensively in his new stop-motion animated film. Even more prevalent than his stop-motion fascination in this new adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, however, is Anderson’s continuing fascination with the eccentric behaviors of families.

Mr. Fox (voiced by the ubiquitous George Clooney, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) is a reformed chicken thief, who now raises his two-year-old son—twelve in fox years—Ash (the nearly as ubiquitous Jason Schwartzman, “Funny People”) with his former partner in crime, now wife, Mrs. Fox (the possibly more ubiquitous Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”). Mr. Fox is restless as a newspaper columnist convinced that no one in the woods reads his articles. He decides to move his family out of their foxhole and into a tree across from three mega farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

His lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray, “Broken Flowers”), is very much against this move, as would his wife be if she knew it was all part of Fox’s plan to return to his nefarious ways. Ash very much wants to go into the “family business”, but it is his cousin Kristopherson (Eric Anderson) who has all the “natural athletic abilities”, a grave point of contention for young Ash.

There will be much complaining about the film as a children’s movie, because it focuses so much on conversation and character, not so much on action. Yet the stop-motion animation keeps the action constant with how the characters look at each other, smile, groom themselves and have ever shifting details that only stop-motion animation provides. Anderson is in full swing here with his oddball characterizations and quirky behavior. The screenplay, co-written by Anderson with “Life Aquatic” collaborator Noah Baumbaugh, plunges the audience into the dysfunction of family while simultaneously showing the wonderful support structure a family can provide.

There is very little resemblance in feeling between this and the work of Roald Dahl, and yet the plot points provided by Dahl’s book fit in well with the zaniness of Anderson’s characters. Eventually Fox comes under the scrutiny of the farmers. Led by the alcohol driven madness of Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon, the “Harry Potter” series), the farmers make it their mission in life to hunt down Fox and his family at all cost.

To say “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a strange movie would be an understatement, but it’s also a fascinating movie. Both the animation format and the unique characters make this movie a joy to watch. Clooney once again finds himself a role that allows him deplorable character flaws yet a charming nature with which to win the favor of both his fellow players and the audience. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” may not be what you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation, but it will leave a smile on your face—a grin in fact, much like you’d find on the fox who finds himself in the hen house.

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