Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson has fun with dysfunctional families
Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox is like peering through a two-way mirror at a kid playing with a shiny new train set. The kid, director Wes Anderson, has been indulged with the very best toys and the very best props and the very best actors’ voices money can buy. He arranges all of this great stuff into a world of his own making and then, with a camera and a crew at his disposal, brings it all to life. He’s obviously brilliant, blessed with a quirky density of imagination and a back catalogue of bizarre but catchy songs, and he’s got a way of telling a story that seems fresh and off-kilter. He is so riotously talented I want to slap him. You know, just to make him snap out of it, come into the real world, meet some grown-ups.Fantastic Mr. Fox was inspired by Roald Dahl’s book, but much of what happens in the movie was never in the book. That doesn’t mean Anderson updates or modernizes the story or the setting. In fact, everything in the movie is so hermitically self-contained in a strange world where foxes interact with humans that the little details seem more important than the larger story, like the sweater Mr. Fox wears, or the product names on store shelves, or the fluid, undersold delivery of the dialogue.
The movie spends so much time being rigorously offbeat that you find yourself drifting in and out of focus on the picture’s primary themes, namely the egos of self-infatuated fathers, the tiny frictions that can slowly erode a marriage, the needs of children to please their parents. Like all of Anderson’s films, this is a movie about a dysfunctional extended family. And like all of Anderson’s films, the art direction acts as a buffer, taking the edge off a sad story.
The movie may be dressed up as a kid’s show, but the comedy is meant for the adults. And it’s all pretty funny. The dialogue is screwball fast, whispery, and punch line perfect. George Clooney, as Mr. Fox, gets the best lines, but there’s good material here for Bill Murray as Fox’s best friend Badger, Jason Schwartzman as his son Ash, Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox, and the director’s brother, Eric, as nephew Kristofferson.
They all get involved in a plot to undermine, and then escape from, the corporate clutches of Franklin Bean, voiced thickly and wonderfully by the British thespian, Michael Gambon. Fox, who tries to be debonair and heroic, ends up getting everybody into more trouble, until his “aha” moment of self-actualization reveals that, by being true to who you really are—in this case a wild animal—you can not only save your life but also your marriage, your family, your place in the world. It’s a sweet little message, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is sweet without being sentimental, cozy without being suffocating, funny without being hip. The absolute best thing about the movie, in my book, is that it is not yet another installment in a long line of dopey Disney or pushy Pixar animations that create fantastic digital worlds and then cram them with irritating characters spouting post-modernist clichés. You know, riffs on other movies, reality TV, celebrities.
Kids may not get all the jokes, but I’d much rather take them to Fantastic Mr. Fox then the next Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, a grating cacophony scheduled to be exploded, like an IED, in the theaters soon. Wes Anderson may shy away from the strong stuff in his storytelling, but at least he hasn’t lost his sense of child-like wonder at the gifts of cinema.