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Fox Can't Keep Out of Hen House

MOVIE REVIEW
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Original
Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is identifiably based on a short story by Roald Dahl: the anthropomorphized animals, the analysis of the English class system and the marginalization of one gender of characters are all his trademarks. But what makes this movie special is that it is identifiably also a Wes Anderson film: the father doing his best for his family in his own peculiar fashion, the slightly remote mother more interested in her own goals than her children and the lonely son desperately seeking his parents’ approval.

In this case, the child — or cub — is Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), who is too small and too weird to be any good at whackbat — a cross between basketball, cricket and recess — to everyone’s disappointment. This aggravation isn’t helped when his older cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s younger brother), comes to stay in the tree Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has bought against the advice of his lawyer Clive Badger (Bill Murray) and over the legitimate concerns of Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep).

Despite his underappreciated career as a newspaper columnist, Mr. Fox is still a wild animal at heart. The tree offers an unparalleled view of the farms belonging to Boggis (Brian Cox), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon), three mean farmers who owe a lot to Mrs. Tweedy from “Chicken Run.” With temptation laid so clearly before him, Mr. Fox feels it’s time he did something wild again. In fact, Nick Park might be a bit cross about this film — parts which aren’t a clear homage to “Chicken Run” seem to have been lifted from the “Wallace & Gromit” oeuvre.

Of course, the stop-motion animation in “Wallace & Gromit” is all plasticine-based, whereas the animals in this movie all have their own fur. Emotions are expressed through the eyes, allowing for plenty of humor; and there are explosions, windstorms and digging scenes that give the animators full and justified opportunity to show off. The animation techniques move from hyper-realism (well, as real as a fox standing on his hind legs in a corduroy suit can be) with attention paid to every strand of fur, to more stylized sequences (such as the opening chase scene with Mr. and Mrs. Fox in the farmyard) in which the pacing and movement are soaring delights. The animals ride along on a customized motorbike complete with sidecar, or meditate in the lotus position before ripping their toast to shreds. There are plenty more good jokes about how animals in kids’ stories are treated, without feeling in the least forced.

After the overindulgent “The Darjeeling Limited,” Mr. Anderson has returned to form by working within the structure of Dahl’s story. With co-writer Noah Baumbach, he has teased Dahl’s book into a peculiar hybrid that somehow is absolutely right. It doesn’t matter that the animals in this little England all have American accents, or that the banter between mismatched cousins Ash and Kristofferson is a close observation of teenage angst that Dahl never even dreamed of penning. When the jokes are this funny and the details so closely observed, it’s perfectly believable that a talking fox with Mr. Clooney’s voice would be the most charming hero cinema has seen in a long time. And frankly, the sexual edge to Mr. Clooney and Ms. Streep’s voiceovers gives no doubt to the health of the Foxes’ marriage. Mr. Anderson was not the obvious choice for this or any other kids’ movie, but his quirky sensibility makes “Fantastic Mr. Fox” a little brother “The Royal Tenenbaums” can be very proud of.

This also has the freshest use of naughty language in a kids’ movie in a long time. One example in particular had the adults in my screening gasping in shock as it sailed right over the little ones’ heads. It’s nice to know that, when it wants to, Hollywood can still make them like it used to.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Opens on Nov. 13 in New York and Los Angeles and on Oct. 23 in Britain.

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Mr. Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl; animation director, Mark Gustafson; director of photography, Tristan Oliver; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Nelson Lowry; produced by Mr. Anderson, Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin and Jeremy Dawson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH THE VOICES OF: George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Jason Schwartzman (Ash), Bill Murray (Badger), Wally Wolodarsky (Kylie), Eric Anderson (Kristofferson), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Willem Dafoe (Rat), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip) and Jarvis Cocker (Petey).

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