My latest DVD purchase was Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I’d originally seen with my kids on a snowy night during last season’s Super Bowl. (Note: I refused to watch the last Super Bowl, for reasons that are fairly evident if you (1) know anything about my complex relationship with the Minnesota Vikings and (2) remember the dark events that occurred in New Orleans on Jan 24, 2010. So we went to this movie instead. Best choice I could have made.)
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop-motion animation film from Wes Anderson that’s based on Roald Dahl’s novella of the same name (though expanded considerably). It’s one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in years. I mean that literally: this thing is full of delights. You know how some corners of popular culture insist (even though it’s so lazy to do so) that intelligence must manifest itself creatively as world-weariness, as sneering cynicism? The next time someone suggests that intelligence and wit can’t live alongside sincerity, remember Fantastic Mr. Fox. This film is so very wise, and so very forthcoming. Even its irony is presented honestly.
It’s the story of a Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, who is perfect for the role. (Picture Clooney as the urbane burglar Danny Ocean in the Ocean’s Eleven movies. Now picture that same character as a fox puppet. That’s basically the character). At his wife’s insistence, Mr. Fox has given up a traditional but dangerous vulpine livelihood (stealing poultry from farms) to settle down in a safe job (a newspaper writer, which might be ironic – there are few jobs less “safe” than print journalism these days) and raise a family with his vixen (voiced by Meryl Streep.) But Mr. Fox finds this bourgeois life stifling, so he decides to undertake — unbeknownst to Mrs. Fox — a final, elaborate, series of heists against the local farms. This indulgence escalates into a turf war between the utterly nasty human farmers and the local wildlife, who literally go underground to escape the wrath of the humans. But more interesting are the personal (can I used that word when I’m talking about animated critters?) relationships that are set against this conflict: the affections but frustrations between Mr. and Mrs. Fox, the rivalry between the Foxes’ son Ash and his golden boy cousin Kristofferson, the superhero and sidekick relationship between Mr. Fox and a dimwitted opossum (“I have completely different teeth than you! I’m an opossum!”).
These characters are rich and complex, none moreso than Mr. Fox. He is appealing and charismatic, but also deeply flawed: he’s a poor father, selfish and immature, and he’s something of a cad. But then again, he’s a fox. That’s what he does. This is one of the film’s great themes: the noble, though possibly unwinnable, battle to become greater than how your nature defines you. Mr. Fox may be a sharp dresser, but the fox in him needs to kill chickens. How can he reconcile this?
The story is sprinkled with are clever running jokes and set pieces. There’s a wonderfully unnecessary riff on the absurd sport of “whack bat,” a hilarious, continuous joke of swearing by using the word “cuss” (“what the cuss are you doing?” “are you cussing with me?”), and a great, late interaction between the woodland animals and a lone wolf. This scene alone is loaded with more irony and beauty and complexity than a hundred episodes of Disney channel programming. Magnificent animals trying to escape from humans by driving down a country road spy a magnificent animal, and then act exactly like humans who have spied a magnificent animal while driving down a country road: how perfect.
I also much mention the soundtrack. When I heard the opening chords to The Rolling Stones’ “street-fighting man” as the war between the farmers and the animals escalated, I found myself consciously saying: there is no better musical choice to accompany this moment. Once more: how perfect.
For me, though, the greatest theme of the movie is the power of invention. Like the best animated films, it continually reminds you that it is the product of the considerable talent and painstaking labor of its creators, while simultaneously removing you from the artifice and letting you enjoy the story. This is unabashedly and completely a piece of art. Every gesture, every prop, every stitch of scenery is carefully controlled, created. The film starts with a poem, and I think that’s a great clue to the film. Because, as in a poem, in Fantastic Mr. Fox there are no accidents. There is nothing – not a frame –that is not the execution of a careful, artistic choice. This means the film is self-conscious and artificial, but it is still honest and true. That’s a hard combination to pull off, but Wes Anderson and his team pull it off triumphantly. You can call Fantastic Mr. Fox a children’s movie or an adult movie, you can quibble about how much of it is an adaptation or an original, but I think you have no choice but to call it a remarkable piece of art.