You don't have to be familiar with the indie style of Wes Anderson to appreciate how special Fantastic Mr. Fox is. However, if you are a fan of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, you'll appreciate just how well that style works for a family film.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) tries to settle down from his life of robbing farms when his wife (Meryl Streep) gets pregnant. He gets a mortgage and moves his family into a nice tree, but the nearby farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean are too tempting for him to resist. Returning to a life of crime gets the Fox family in more trouble when the farmers come after them.
Anderson's use of music and fragmented/episodic storytelling has given his live-action films a slightly whimsical touch. In animation, it's totally whimsical. The on-screen text tells us how much time has passed, and translates years into fox years. The Fox kids play a sport called Whack Bat that has more convoluted rules than Harry Potter's Quidditch. It's so gleefully stupid that you love watching them play it.
When they swear, they just use the word "cuss." As in, "What the cuss is going on?" That's even more effective than "frak," because it's blatantly ironic. Frak was clearly a euphemism for the F word, but cuss is just a euphemism for swearing itself.
The animated film operates on a dual level that rivals Pixar. Mr. Fox deals with themes of aging, family life, satisfaction with work and mortgages. Kids will appreciate the family drama. Ash (Jason Schwartzman) isn't good at a lot of things, and he really wants his father's approval. It's tough when his overachieving cousin comes to live with them. Heck, you don't need to be a grownup to know that it's bad to lie to your wife. That's for everyone.
It's an epic story even within this little Fox world. Mr. Fox's actions bring on the destruction of his home, his family and his neighbors. And then it's about animals devouring food and running up the walls, because that's just funny.
With Clooney's voice, the farm heists recall the glory of Ocean's 11. Even without that reference, it's adorable to see Mr. Fox outsmart the dogs and execute precision tactics to avoid surveillance. Chicken Run did a similar thing with a coop breakout, but this tops it nine years later.
The animation is beautiful. The settings actually look golden. Most of the stop-motion we see is dark—obviously the Tim Burton-influenced films, but even the Aardman ones (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) seem to suffer from artificial lighting. The world of Mr. Fox shines. The camera moves fluidly, so the film always feels dynamic. Look for little details in the sets: a fire extinguisher emits fuzz, perhaps cotton, and steam looks like wisps of string.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is high energy with real stakes, and it's just cool. Mainly, it's soooooo much fun.