Fantastic Mr. Fox certainly looks the part of a kids' movie. It's based on a children's book (by the beloved Roald Dahl, no less), and tells a vivid and entertaining story about a cast of wild critters brought to life through a combination of stop-motion animation and computer wizardry. There's no profanity or heavy on-screen violence, and the film is briskly paced (under 90 minutes long), very funny and sports a killer soundtrack. Still, no one will ever confuse Mr. Fox with a Disney production, and that's because every frame is dripping with the sensibility of its creator, writer/director Wes Anderson.
Told in "Fox Years" (with 12 equaling one human year), Mr. Fox begins as Mr. (Clooney) and Mrs. (Streep) Fox are swiping some birds from a nearby farm. The pair ends up in a cage, and Mrs. Fox lets it slip that she's preggers before making Mr. promise that if they make it out of this one alive, he'll give up his life of crime and settle down. Jump ahead 12 fox years, Mr. Fox is a successful reporter (who, like all reporters, doubts his friends read his work) and father to young Ash (Jason Schwartzman), a grumpy little brat who's struggling to fit in at school and sparring with a visiting cousin. Tired of living underground, Mr. Fox contacts his lawyer (a badger voiced by Bill Murray) about securing some new digs. A suitable house (in this case, a giant, hallowed-out tree) is found and soon the family has moved in.
The new home is perfect, and oh, the view: miles of squared-off farmland stretching into the distance, perfect for Mrs. Fox's elaborate landscape paintings (which always seem to contain melancholy lightning or dark funnel clouds). Three farms dot the horizon, each owned by a foul man: sirs Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Bean (voiced by Michael Gambon) is the real prick of the bunch, but none of the farmers takes kindly to thieving foxes. The shit hits the fan after Mr. Fox starts swiping from all three, with the rampaging farmers threatening the survival of the entire animal community.
Yes, I said community. One of the most appealing things about Mr. Fox is the way the adult animals talk, dress and act like human adults with grown-up interactions, feelings and problems — they just happen to be critters. After a scolding from Mrs. Fox over his reckless thievery, Mr. Fox just shrugs and blames his animal nature. Can you blame a fox for being a fox? And isn't that all of us, really, maintaining a thin veneer of civility throughout our public lives while secretly hiding a perceived wild animal deep inside?
Children's movies that appeal to adults are certainly nothing new — Where The Wild Things Are being the most recent example. But while Spike Jonze's film is an authentic kids movie produced for a pre-teen audience, Mr. Fox seems more a movie for adults that uses all the standard tropes of kiddie-flicks to tell its story. Despite the look of the film and the fact that the lead characters are mostly adorable animals, I have no idea if kids will like Fantastic Mr. Fox at all. There's a lot of dialogue (when you have George Clooney and Meryl Streep as your voice actors, it makes sense to load them up with lines), and the characters are always going on about big person concerns like real estate and investments. Are today's kids really as savvy as that eTrade baby?
Which brings me back to Wes Anderson. As a director, Anderson has a distinct visual style, and the animated Mr. Fox allows it to breathe in a way that's not possible in the confined reality of live action. Even more than the visuals, it's the stabbing vocal cadence of the actors (particularly Schwartzman) that can only be described as "Andersonian." As such, Fantastic Mr. Fox deserves comparisons to Anderson's best work and shows the director righting himself after the disappointment of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. It's also one of the best films of the year.