Film Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Delightfully witty and surprisingly thoughtful, Wes Anderson's animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel is, in a word, fantastic.

Big-screen adaptations of beloved books are always tricky propositions. Hew too closely to the source material and the movie is often dismissed as being little more than a book-on-film. But take too many liberties with the text and be prepared for an intense backlash from passionate fans furious over the "desecration" of one of their favorite literary works. What's a filmmaker to do? Well, in the case of Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated retelling of Roald Dahl's fondly remembered 1970 children's book, co-writer/director Wes Anderson finds that elusive middle ground, retaining enough of the novel's elements to satiate purists, while at the same time remaking the story into a decidedly different creature.

In the same way that Spike Jonze used Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as a vehicle to explore his own childhood memories and fears, Anderson works many of his personal fascinations—among them eccentric fathers, absent and/or aloof mothers and intense sibling rivalries—into the framework of Dahl's narrative. The result is a Wes Anderson picture through-and-through, albeit one that arrives in theatres disguised in kid-movie clothing. You've got to wonder how parents still feeling burned over Jonze's more mature take on Where the Wild Things Are will react after realizing they've dragged their kids to another children's book-derived feature that's actually made for grown-ups.

Then again, that's their problem. The rest of us—or at least those of us still onboard the Anderson bandwagon even after missteps like The Life Aquatic—can simply laugh our butts off at the director's funniest film since Rushmore. That's not to say that The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited didn't have a healthy amount of hilarious moments, but overall those seriocomedies trended more towards the serious than the comic. Whether it's due to the medium (stop-motion animation) or the source, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the most playful and, arguably, the most purely enjoyable film in Anderson's still-modest canon. And yet, the movie also possesses his trademark tinge of melancholy, which gives it an unexpected emotional heft.

On the page, Fantastic Mr. Fox told the story of a particularly clever member of the canis vulpes species who prides himself on pulling off daring robberies from a trio of local farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Unfortunately, his successful raids spur the men to literally try to dig Mr. Fox and his family out of their house and home. While hiding out deep underground, the Fox clan discovers that they can continue to swipe food from the farmers' stockrooms and establish an entire animal city beneath the earth populated by badgers, rabbits and weasels.

The film follows the same general storyline, but Anderson has embellished the narrative with lots of new creatures and subplots, not to mention strikingly different personalities for the existing characters. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), for example, is still boastful and overconfident, but he's also full of deep internal conflict about being a husband, father and, above all, a predator. Meanwhile, his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is desperate to win Daddy's approval, a task that becomes more difficult after his smarter, more athletic and more attractive cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) moves in. The rest of the diverse supporting cast includes Mr. Fox's eternally patient wife (Meryl Streep), a not-too-bright but very loyal opossum (Wally Wolodarsky) and a gruff Badger (Bill Murray) who doubles as the Fox family's lawyer.

Most film adaptations of Dahl's novels have tried to match the author's fanciful prose with equally exaggerated images. Anderson avoids that temptation, employing the same visual style he's honed throughout his career—beautifully composed still frames that highlight his always-obsessive attention to production design. In fact, many of the movie's biggest laughs come from a background object or the look of a particular set. Instead of forcing his style to fit the medium, Anderson has made the medium fit his style and, as a result, Fantastic Mr. Fox looks unlike any Roald Dahl movie or, indeed, stop-motion animated feature made to date. While the animation here isn't as lush as Henry Selick's brilliant Coraline, it's not aiming for that kind of razzle-dazzle. (Interestingly, Selick—who filmed the stop-motion sequences in The Life Aquatic—was reportedly involved with Fox at an early point in the pre-production process, but his name doesn't appear anywhere in the credits.)

Fantastic Mr. Fox may not necessarily be a great children's movie, but it is a pretty fantastic Wes Anderson film.