In a world of children’s films increasingly characterized by technological accomplishment and sophisticated rendering in lieu of good old-fashioned storytelling, it was a breath of fresh air to enjoy the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Tapping the considerable voice talents of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Bill Murray (Badger), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip), Willem Dafoe (Rat) and Jason Schwartzman (Ash), director Wes Anderson has taken a quirky children’s story written by Roald Dahl and craft an engaging movie that is simultaneously edgy and delightful.
Like Where the Wild Things Are, the story of Fantastic Mr. Fox is deceptively lightweight: Mr. Fox, upon learning his wife is pregnant, swears off mischief and thievery, but in a sort of vulpes version of a mid-life crisis, later can’t resist the urge to pull off one more great caper. His nemesis? The three farmers across the valley, Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Boggis (voiced by Robin Hurlstone) runs a chicken farm, Bunce (Hug Guinness) has a pig farm and Bean (Gambon) has a turkey farm and apple orchard, the latter of which he uses to produce hundreds of gallons of alcoholic cider. They are perfect targets for the sly and savvy Mr. Fox with his incessant plans. What he doesn’t plan on is their aggressive response to the thefts.
Adding to the mix, Mr. Fox’s brother is suffering from double pneumonia and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them, pushing out their son Ash (Schwartzman), who acutely feels his inability to measure up to the talents and mystique of his cousin.
Characteristic of Dahl’s work (he also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach), there’s a dark shadow that flits throughout the story, offering up surprisingly adult moments, characters that cuss when they get frustrated, a strained relationship between the self-absorbed Mr. Fox and his son Ash, and even foxes killing chickens (just barely off-camera). I enjoyed it, but was surprised more than once at the language and tone, though it might well pass most children without them realizing what had transpired.
One of my favorite characters was Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Bean cider storeroom guard, his introduction in the story was accompanied by cheesy spaghetti western theme music. It’s very much The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Dafoe has just the right edge to his voice here to pull it off, even when he’s snapping his fingers and acting for all purposes like a member of the Jets from West Side Story.
In a dialog that’s oft-repeated, Mr. and Mrs. Fox talk about his urge to pull off a caper as a way to reinvigorate his life, even if it brings great danger to the entire family in the form of retaliation by the mean farmers:
Mrs. Fox: “This story is too predictable.” Mr. Fox: “What happens in the end?” Mrs. Fox: “We all die unless you change your ways.”
Ultimately the film ends with Mr. Fox lifting his glass at a banquet with all of his animal friends: “Let’s drink a toast to … our survival.” And indeed, perhaps that’s all we can ask in the face of a hostile world.
For a children’s film to have this existential subtext is remarkable, and if you’re looking for something with a terrific visual style, witty visuals and dialog, and a story that operates at a number of levels, I’ll recommend you check out Fantastic Mr. Fox. If you’re going to bring children along, an investment in reading the book to them first might greatly help younger ones understand what’s going on too.
Our rating: Four stars (out of four)