Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Written at the time of the film's release.

"Pure Wild Animal Craziness"

Tough to peg Wes Anderson. Idiosyncratic and gifted, sometimes he becomes so involved in his worlds on-screen that he forgets his audience. Sometimes, his films become trying—show of hands out there for everybody who liked The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?—although there are some folks who just can't warm to Anderson's culture clashes no matter how pop he gets. But, he keeps experimenting, pushing how unsympathetic or dysfunctional his characters could become, milking as little information from his frame set-ups as possible (calculate how much of his screen-time is associated with a character staring at the audience and you'd get a high percentage). There are the experiments in form, like the Hotel Chevalier prequel to The Darjeeling Limited that lent nothing— absolutely nothing—to the film, but because it was released to the Internet, it generated some "buzz."
Anderson goes out on a limb, too, with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," a stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl's children's story,* Anderson's pop-culture sensibilities are rooted in the 1960's and 70's,** and one can feel tangible echoes of Rankin-Bass television specials, even the animation has a slight, clunky "Gumby" feel to it.*** Yet he manages to make a sly (like a fox) adaptation that speaks to both kids and adults in skewed ways.
F. F. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a notorious chicken thief, who upon hearing his wife, Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep) is pregnant (at the inopportune moment a trap has been sprung on them) makes a promise to her that he'll give up his chicken-pickin' ways and provide a stable home for his family. He becomes a newspaper writer ("Does anybody actually read my column?" he frequently asks), and although its a stable enough environment for a fox, its got none of the thrill of his old life. Appearing to go through a drastic mid-fox-life-crisis, he decides to buy a tree-house against the advice of his badger-lawyer (Bill Murray). And then, with the arrival of his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson)—an act that aggravates Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman)—the domestication makes him snap and he decides to go for that "one big last job" (linking this George Clooney character to the ones in Ocean's Eleven and Out of Sight). The results are short-term windfalls, but at a cost, putting his family and the entire local animal kingdom at risk.**** Mr. Fox must learn complacency with domesticity, and life, such as it is.
Kids will like the animation and the jokes, which never stoop to the toilet level of average every-day kid's movies, and parents will like the playful adult sensibility Anderson and co-scenarist Noah Baumbach bring to the story: as an instance, all curse words are thrown into the all-inclusive hamper of "cuss," as in "What the cuss are you saying," and "This is going to be a cluster-cuss." And there's the shout-outs to cineastes (snooty children), including a Citizen Kane-based room-clearing that goes deliriously on and on (such destruction is tough to do one frame at a time, or in this case, two at a time). But, that burst of self-punishing annihilation may seem a bit drawn out and pointless to those who've never "seen the cockatoo," and presages some third act pacing problems that the film-makers probably can't see at such "whirr-click-whirr-click" speeds.
Fore-warned is fore-armed. Just let it go, send the kids out for some popcorn if they get restless, and admire how the animators make tears well-up in the characters' eyes, how Meryl Streep is still a brilliant actress with only her voice to fall back on, and how Clooney, without his expressive eyes, sounds a bit like an "empty suit." Adult concerns that you didn't worry about in childhood. Domesticity will do that to ya.

* Are any of Dahl's books children's stories, really?

** The soundtrack starts off with "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and goes on to include a couple of Beach Boys standards and "Street Fighting Man" by the Stones.

*** Not that the animation is bad—not at all—it has a jerkily primitive nostalgic feel to it, like an old clay-mation educational film, with a precise attention to detail, reminiscent of Willis H. O'Brien's original work "handling" King Kong.

**** Message Alert! Message Alert! Woop! Woop!

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