Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Film Review

The title character of Wes Anderson's first animated feature is a cad, a rogue, an incorrigible thief. He's also a family man, struggling to do right on the marital and child-rearing fronts. Voiced by George Clooney, he's no small part Danny Ocean. If "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is an eye-popping, kid-friendly adaptation of Roald Dahl's attitude-packed 1970 book, it's at least as much a film for adults.

The screenplay sometimes overdoes the winking asides, and the film doesn't so much flow as jump from one set piece to the next. But with animation director Mark Gustafson, DP Tristan Oliver and production designer Nelson Lowry, Anderson has created a world as stylized and inventive as anything he's done. From the fox-red glow of a morning idyll to the noirish gutter scene where one character meets his end to the icy fluorescent glare of the film's closing scene -- happy but not without compromise -- "Fox" is a visual delight.

The movie, which premiered at the London fest and bows Nov. 13 in New York and Los Angeles before going wide for Thanksgiving, is not likely to dethrone Disney's "Princess" in the year-end animation tallies, but word-of-mouth should make it a cunning alt-family-fare contender.

The word "texture" gets tossed around a lot, but this stop-motion escapade is alive with it, beginning with the puppets by U.K. outfit MacKinnon and Saunders. They're furry animals who walk upright and dress with style but who are, we're reminded on more than one occasion, wild creatures. They kill to survive, and when they eat, they devour. Miss Manners would not approve.

Among Anderson's films, "Fox" hews closest to "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" in its handmade aesthetic, though its vision is far less, well, fantastic. That strange adventure, like this film, was co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Their "Fox" script softens the dysfunctional edges without sugarcoating the director's ideas about the nuclear family and conflicted father figures. There's plenty of angst, of the grown-up and teen varieties, to go around. Just listen to the way Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), the antihero's former partner in crime, says "I'm pregnant."

Twelve "fox years" after she makes that ambivalent statement, Fox has forsaken larceny and works as a newspaperman who suspects that no one reads his column. (Who says kids' films can't reflect contemporary reality?) Wanting to move on up as a homeowner, he buys a tree he can't quite afford. Soon he's donning the raffish corduroy getup from his bad old days and enlisting the help of a spacey opossum (Wally Wolodarsky) in "one last" big job. His targets are the three nastiest farmers for miles around: Boggis, Bunce and the ultramean Bean (Michael Gambon).

As deliciously dry as Gambon's villain is, the bad guys are of less concern to Anderson than they were to Dahl. What drives this caper is the Fox home front. Diminutive son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, in a fine adolescent sulk) can't measure up to his debonair dad or his perfect cousin Kristofferson (an equally effective Eric Anderson, brother of the director). A terrific detail is the way Ash twitches his ear when his feelings are hurt. The cousins' rivalry is comic and touching, and Anderson administers a familiar Hollywood lesson -- the beauty of being different -- without the usual schmaltz.

Star voice casts can be more distracting than helpful, but Clooney and Streep bring shadings to their characters that deepen the story. The supporting cast, effective if not indelible, includes Anderson regulars Bill Murray as attorney Badger, Willem Dafoe as security guard Rat and Owen Wilson as Ash's discouragement-dispensing coach.

Boomer faves by the Beach Boys and the Stones punctuate the soundtrack, with Alexandre Desplat delivering an elegant gallop of a score. Upping the hipster quotient in lovely, non-ironic fashion is Jarvis Cocker's bit as farmhand Petey, a banjo-playing Jarvis Cocker look-alike who strums a rootsy ditty by campfire.

Venue: London Film Festival (Fox)
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