The best thing about Fantastic Mr. Fox? Director Wes Anderson liberates commercial animated cinema from the limits of children’s movies. With Henry Selik’s Coraline and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, this amounts to the most noteworthy film movement of 2009—striking a necessary blow against Pixar’s brainwashing, which has dictated most people’s expectations of what animated movies should be. Anderson’s roguish bon vivant Mr. Fox (title character from Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s book) exceeds his wild animal nature, going past cute anthropomorphism to question traps set by humans and defy mankind’s exploitative farm industries. These escapades unleash his bushy-tailed, sharp-toothed, aggressively willful personality. In short, Anderson has made a Wes Anderson film.
After mainstream media snubbed the
excellent The Darjeeling Limited, it was clear that Anderson’s personal vision didn’t fit the norm. The Darjeeling Limited resolved cultural and spiritual alienation but was rejected by fickle hipsters for 2007’s trendy There Will Be Blood-ism.
Now, with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson bounces back with heroic arrogance. This
animated film ventures into the sure-fire territory of the babysitter-movie, yet it is willfully conceived and executed on Anderson’s own terms. Parents who dutifully bring their children may find themselves challenged. Without Rushmore’s neat trick of flattering indie viewers (those who mistook Max Fischer for a Clintonian Ferris Bueller), Fantastic Mr. Fox tweaks the elitism it seems to extol. Mr. Fox’s schemes to rob the human conglomerate-farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean for their chickens, ducks and cider seem vaguely altruistic, while asserting reckless vanity. This typical Anderson story, combining male hubris and communal unity, answers the emotional bankruptcy of current genre filmmaking.
Every sequence is meticulously, ardently stylized. Layered with graphic surprises and nostalgic pop-culture promptings (an Art Tatum reference, a caper sequence putting four different forms of animation on surveillance monitors), Fantastic Mr. Fox renews one’s sense of animation’s possibilities. Your childlike wonder at the big-screen display of imagination isn’t suckered into techno awe as with those formulaic Pixar flicks that lull parents and children into consumerist stooges. Instead, Fantastic Mr. Fox affords a refined, witty, recognition of the processes that convert fantasy into art. This was Subtext in Where the Wild Things Are, Theme in Coraline and given Real World Context in Jared Hess’s brave, though misunderstood, Gentlemen Broncos.
Fantastic Mr. Fox keeps such peculiar distance from babysitter-movie conventions that its self-consciousness (including anachronistic pop tunes) becomes a virtue. It was always disappointing when Spielberg claimed he wanted to make the kind of movies he went to see as a child. Only fools believed that. Truffaut had
already advised that once you’re able to make those kinds of movies, you no longer can.
Maturity and conscience get in the way—
unless an artist is corrupt. That’s the meaning
I see in the revelation of where Mr. Fox and his friends’ climactic adventures occur. It symbolizes Anderson’s recognition of the circumstances defining his work. Like Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, Anderson has no fairytale illusions about his personal schemes, sponsorship or expense. Not trying to regain his innocence, he redefines—animates—his ambitions.
Frequently knocked for being “quirky,” Anderson turns his vision of the world into stop-motion animation. It could make his sensibility acceptable for some—especially those who routinely resist his humane sentiments. Giving menagerie-like characteristics and visages to his usual alter-ego protagonist (voiced by George Clooney), nobly suffering spouse (Meryl Streep) and competitive but loyal friends (Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson) evokes the safe world of Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows as much as the genuinely quirky Dahl. It’s also rather insular.
After Darjeeling broke through egoism, family dysfunction and ethnic isolation, Anderson seemed ready to soar into new realms of complex sociology, cultural awareness and pure emotional power. This isn’t quite it, but understand: He’s still photographing his sensibility. Intellectually, this is not a cartoon.
Yet, Fantastic Mr. Fox is so not childish,
so not self-parody. Its elaborate, imaginative details (from the root-vegetable décor of the Fox family’s home as they move from warren to trees and back underground to Lescaux-like cave drawings in their new abode) are full of wonderment. It illustrates Anderson’s ingenuity, the acceptance of his youthful self. Anderson’s complex of familiar motifs is redolent of childhood advancing to adulthood. The dance and action scenes aren’t Broadway fodder, rather they match The Prince of Egypt’s radically multi-dimensional hieroglyphics sequence—a highpoint for both dexterous animation and cultural reinvention.
Splendid as Fantastic Mr. Fox looks (and the animals’ faces are spirited), it’s inherently less satisfying than The Darjeeling Limited. No animation can match human transparency—although Ash’s stupefied expression when he gets rescued is totally endearing. Essentially, Mr. Fox’s misadventures replay The Life Aquatic, re-indulging narcissism (he confesses a priggish need to “intimidate” that is not charming, which sounds like smug co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach). Darjeeling surpassed such smugness, plus it was the most gorgeously designed movie of the decade. Flaunting Anderson’s trademark lateral pans and cross-sectional viewpoints, Fantastic Mr. Fox confirms cinema as a visual art. Its serious-delirious jest includes an artistic cliffhanger: Where will Anderson go from here?
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
Runtime: 87 min.
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