If you’re familiar with the movies of Wes Anderson you will not be caught unawares by his version of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which is every inch a Wes Anderson movie. All that separates it from “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “Rushmore” is that the characters are woodland creatures, and that the film was painstakingly shot using hand-crafted models and stop-motion animation.
These prove to be significant variations. While there is admittedly a certain sameness to all of Anderson’s films, there’s something inherently delightful about seeing his bored, angst-ridden, and bemused dialogue delivered by foxes, badgers, and possums. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” feels like the distillation of everything Anderson has ever done, boiled down to its barest essentials. This is the movie Anderson would make if he were a kid and all he had for actors were toy dolls.
Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) is a sly, confident creature who used to steal fowl from nearby farms until his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), got pregnant, two years (or 12 fox-years) ago. A life of crime is no way for a family man to live, so Mr. Fox got a job as a columnist for the woodland newspaper.
But Mr. Fox is not content. He wants to move the family out of the burrow and into a tree. He also wants to perpetrate one more heist of the three neighborhood farms, for old times’ sake. He has a semi-willing accomplice in his landlord, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), a possum whose eyes frequently glaze over into pinwheels when he’s given critical information.
The heists and their aftermath, with the enraged farmers staging a siege of the Fox family’s tree and the Foxes joining forces with the other animals, is basically from Dahl’s 1970 children’s book. The rest is pure Anderson, drawn from a screenplay by him and Noah Baumbach (who co-wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and wrote and directed “Margot at the Wedding.”) In Anderson’s world, the carefree Mr. Fox feels pressure to be fantastic all the time. He is disappointed in his son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is sullen and withdrawn and has no athletic prowess. (Mr. Fox was a champion whackbat player, back in the day.) When Ash’s cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), visits for a few months and immediately becomes a star at school, Ash is jealous and Mr. Fox is enthusiastically proud. What would a Wes Anderson film be without daddy issues?
Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Owen Wilson are on hand as Mr. Fox’s badger lawyer and the school’s whackbat coach, respectively. Willem Dafoe plays a conniving rat who guards the cider supply of one of the farmers. (Between this and “Antichrist,” that’s two Willem Dafoe films this year with talking foxes.) The farmers themselves (voiced by Michael Gambon, Robin Hurlstone, and Hugo Guinness) are exaggeratedly mean and ugly in the tradition of children’s stories.
All the characters are sharply dressed in meticulously designed miniature clothing. The use of models and stop-motion photography gives the film a distinctly charming look that you don’t get from hand-drawn or computer-animated cartoons. It feels old-fashioned and quaint, which fits nicely with foxes who wear well-tailored suits and have exchanges like this:
FOX: Go to the flint mine, tell Mrs. Badger, et al., that help is on the way.
MRS. FOX: Is help on the way?
FOX: I sure as cuss hope so.
He really says “et al.” That detail alone is priceless, and the film is filled with such minutiae. You wouldn’t think merely transferring one of Anderson’s low-key family-in-crisis comedies to the animal kingdom would give it such an immeasurable boost of delightfulness, but that’s sure what happened.
A- (1 hr., 27 min.; )