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Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ remains an animated stop-motion joy
“You wrote a bad song, Petey!”
It is always interesting when one of our favorite directors steps into the world of animation. Guillermo del Toro’s version of Pinocchio is upon us, and his dark stylings look to be well suited to the story. We’ve seen the tale depicted before, but not with del Toro pulling the animated strings. A similar thing happened when Wes Anderson took on Roald Dahl for the first time in 2009, and the result is Fantastic Mr. Fox.
We’d seen many takes on Dahl over the years, but none of those takes complimented Dahl’s work as well as Anderson’s does. His whimsy and humor do wonders for the tale of Mr. Fox. If you were already into Anderson’s movies, then this was a joyful elevation. If you didn’t like his work, then this movie may have converted you.
Anderson’s whimsy is not cute, no matter what some people say. It is born out of darkness and melancholy, with a solid baseline of craft. This is true of all of his movies before this, as well as after this. Fantastic Mr. Fox is certainly full of warmth and fun, but if any of the characters heard you call them cute (or that dreaded descriptor, “twee”) then they’d bite your finger off. Dahl’s characters are given life like never before, mostly because Anderson chose to animate the film using (primarily) stop motion.
He was originally going to direct it with Henry Selick, who made contributions to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Selick eventually left to work on Coraline, but you can still see his imprint on the film. Almost everything in the movie is made with miniatures, and the materials used to create those miniatures are real. The characters are painstakingly rendered and animated to the point where the word “puppet” never enters your mind. There are plenty of seams to be seen, too. The thumbs and fingermarks of animators moving the characters around for the stop-motion effects are not hidden. There’s no attempt to cover them up.
This doesn’t take you out of the movie; the opposite happens instead. The charming effect pulls you further in, and makes you feel like the characters (and the world they are living in) is tactile. You can reach through the screen and join them. They come alive with their fur constantly moving bristling. It is a big-budget movie, painstakingly made over the course of several years, yet at the same time, it feels like you’re watching a talented child create dioramas in a shoebox.
The actors that Anderson assembled give everything a huge boost, with no less than George Clooney playing the titular role. Meryl Streep plays Mrs. Fox for heaven’s sake, and Anderson stalwarts Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody are all there. Michael Gambon shines as the villainous Mr. Bean, and a highlight of the film is him chastising Petey (Jarvis Cocker) for writing a bad song before he flicks a spent cigarette at him.
Cocker has a few songs on the soundtrack, and Alexandre Desplat contributes a perfect score. When you put all of these things together and tie them up in an Anderson bow, you get one of the most charming damn movies in existence.
The action sequences are genuinely thrilling and always innovative. The on point, with Schwartzman’s jealousy-ridden Ash standing out. The movie manages to capture some incredible moments of deadpan resentment from this character (“No you’re not, you’re disloyal.”) before he eventually lets go of it. It’s heartwarming too; when Mr. Fox finally gives a toast, it makes you want to celebrate. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Tuesday, it doesn’t matter. Celebrate whatever you want.
What is always a surprise to us when we revisit the movie (which we do often) is the movie’s depth. Whimsy, comedy, festive good feelings, we expected these things and we got them in huge amounts. The journey from existential fear to mutual respect is something that we did not see coming.
Mr. Fox has very few fears, but if anyone mentions wolf, he will temporarily stop dead in his tracks. He also has moments where he contemplates what the life of a fox should even be. Towards the end of the movie, there is a silent moment where Mr. Fox sees an actual wolf in the distance. He raises a paw, and the wolf raises a silent paw back. Something changes within Mr. Fox — much of his fear and doubt (about both wolves and himself) are accepted, acknowledged, and given rest. If the movie wasn’t made as well as it was, the moment wouldn’t land. That’s not the case; the scene charges right into our souls.
Not bad for a movie about a thieving fox, which just so happens to end with an apple juice bacchanal.
Dahl’s original story is nestled in the middle of the movie, with Anderson providing an additional frame with co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach. The additions don’t feel out of place, they feel like they belong. Rabid Dahl enthusiasts should be at peace, probably because Anderson himself is a rabid Dahl enthusiast.
He never forces those classic Dahl feelings to adapt to his own style. Instead, his style puts Dahl’s work on an altar. It shines brighter than ever before. It’s not an easy thing to do with an animated movie, or any movie based on Dahl’s writing, for that matter.
It is homespun and rough-hewn. Unlike Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it is never glossy and suave. It feels like Anderson and his team assembled the film with help from a sorcerer tree that they all happened upon one day. The tree allowed them to take some fallen branches of laughing wood and asked them to conjure the movie.
Whether del Toro’s newest masterwork got your animated motor going or you just want to revisit a bit of real magic this holiday season, then Fantastic Mr. Fox is there for you. Raise your boxes in celebration.
Stream The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Peacock.