Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

The stock complaint against Wes Anderson is that his movies are more about finicky dollhouse visuals than story. And yet when it looks as good as Fantastic Mr. Fox — shot, literally, in a dollhouse — it’s hard to see why that might be a problem. The visuals define the story. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a tour de force of expressive stop motion animation, characters and details fluttering and shimmering in every frame, but never shying away from the slightly-rigid geometry of the medium so that the audience never forgets how meticulous the construction of the film is.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is almost too beautiful. Rather, its beauty is laborious; you are never not noticing the attention to detail of its physical construction. I absolutely love looking at it, but I’m, like, always looking at it. The experience of consuming the movie as visual art surpasses consuming it as a filmed narrative. This probably sounds a little bit like a complaint, and to some degree, it is — I ultimately feel a slight bit of distance between myself and the movie. But the lede should be that it’s really fucking beautiful bespoke animation.

After Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) get caught stealing squabs (i.e. game birds), she reveals that she’s pregnant, and makes him swear off farm thieving. Twelve fox years (i.e. two solar years) later, Mr. Fox is feeling resentful of his domesticity and fatherhood. The family moves into a new house near three farms, which lures Mr. Fox back into covert animal thieving.

The story from here essentially plays out like a heist movie. I am not the first to observe that Clooney also starred in the most popular heist series in film history, the Ocean’s movies — maybe that’s why Anderson cast him. There are a deluge of fun set pieces and details in these actiony bits. (E.g., Willem Dafoe plays a guard rat — named Rat — who steals both scenes he appears in.)

The film has a theme of reluctant parenthood as Mr. Fox’s misfit son Ash (Jacon Schwartzman) tries to win some of his aloof father’s affection. The tension is only heightened by the appearance of Ash’s charming and immediately-beloved cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

I find the plot to be a bit manic and disjointed overall. There are some great moments, but I never shake the sense that it’s mostly there as something to hang this tremendous visual style upon. It works in fits and starts, which is all it needs to get across the finish line, but not enough to elevate it to any sort of pantheon.

I should add that I have never read the source Roald Dahl book. But I have read other Dahl books, and I find Fantastic Mr. Fox (the film) does a pretty good job of capturing the author’s tenor: a touch dark but still mostly whimsical.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is absolutely worth watching on the strength of its stop motion alone. The emphasis on oranges and reds make it feel so autumnal. Its narrative tone, too, is inviting, and its many little quirks add up to a distinct personality. (I develop the bad habit of imitating the tongue click-whistle thing that Mr. Fox for a week every time I watch.) But it’s not Anderson’s sublime blend of storytelling and mise en scene working at full power — almost, but not quite.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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