The Good: Moments of humor, Fun animation, Decent plot progression, Interesting characters.
The Bad: Predictable arcs, Pacing is a little slow
The Basics: A fun, but somewhat slow, film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox works as a decent fable that most adults are likely to appreciate.
It always amuses me when my wife picks out our film for the night and then we discover I enjoy it a lot more than she does. Last year, we got too busy with other things to go see The Fantastic Mr. Fox while it was in theaters, so when our local library got the film in on DVD, we made sure to pick it up. She seemed disappointed by it, whereas I liked what I saw, mostly because it made good use out of talented voice actors while having an engaging style.
In almost every way, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a typical Wes Anderson film. Anderson adapted the book by Roald Dahl and like most of his other works, he says more with soundtrack and silence than most directors say with a verbose script. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is no different in that regard. Mr. Fox, Mrs. Fox, Ash and Kristofferson make profound statements followed by silence and stares in reaction. This is very much the canvass Wes Anderson paints upon and it is packed with his brushstrokes.
Of course, in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson hides his human statements in the guise of animal characters and it did not take long while watching the movie that the full extent of the necessary suspension of disbelief kicked in for my partner and I. She commented on how foxes do not climb trees before acknowledging that they do not stand on their hind legs and wear clothes either. Despite their outward appearances, the characters in The Fantastic Mr. Fox are very much human. The underlying theme of the movie, which is packed with characters undergoing various forms of angst and discontent, is about the acceptance of the primal Self. Dahl and Anderson think it is time to accept that part of ourselves which we - as part of organized societies - repress. And the argument is well-made in The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Mr. Fox is out with Mrs. Fox stealing chickens when they are trapped and Mrs. Fox informs her companion that she is pregnant. Getting out of the cage they are in, Mr. Fox vows to quit his stealing ways and become a responsible member of society. Two (human) years later, Mr. Fox writes a newspaper column, is generally respected and is eager to buy the treehouse of his dreams. Moving Mrs. Fox, their son Ash and his nephew Kristofferson into the house, Mr. Fox begins to feel restless. As Ash and Kristofferson compete for the attentions of a classmate, Mr. Fox enlists his Weasel friend to accompany him on a heist of the nearby farms of Boggins, Bunce and Bean.
But the ruthless quality of Boggins, Bunce and Bean is more than just the stuff of local legends and children's songs. When Mr. Fox fills his family's pantry with cider and chickens from the farms, Franklin Bean organizes his fellow farmers and becomes obsessed with capturing and killing Mr. Fox. When their first encounter leaves Mr. Fox without his tail, Mrs. Fox becomes upset over her husband's violation of trust and when Kristofferson is captured, Mr. Fox must put the welfare of all of the animals in the field above his own life.
Mr. Fox is an intriguing character and in pure Wes Anderson form, he has his character flaws. He is constantly conniving and he never truly listens to Mrs. Fox or what her wants and needs are. Mrs. Fox is meek and kind, but she does try to voice her opinions, most of which Mr. Fox does the exact opposite of. Still, it is clear Mr. Fox loves Mrs. Fox and his son, even when he is impressed by Kristofferson's athletic abilities. That level of awe leaves Ash feeling left out and the parallel story with the young foxes competing may seem unnecessary, but it lends a timeless feel to the conflicts that Mr. and Mrs. Fox are going through.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox has a claymation style of animation to it and visually the film is fun, if a little choppy. For close-up shots, Anderson captures genuine emotions, like tears welling up and spilling forth from Mrs. Fox's eyes or a look of intelligence and cunning from Mr. Fox as he hatches his latest plan. Indeed, The Fantastic Mr. Fox might have worked just as well as a movie without dialogue. As a silent movie with the soundtrack intact, the animation is so expressive one suspects very little would be lost.
That said, the pacing for the movie is off. The Fantastic Mr. Fox tries to tell a fairly epic story and it succeeds, but it hardly captivates the viewer for the entire running time. Instead, the movie starts out good, gets bogged down with the subplot involving Kristofferson and Ash before returning to the title character and his issues and flaws. As the siege begins and goes from bad to worse, the viewer sits with a "get on with it" attitude because the movie simply is not getting there terribly quickly.
The characters in The Fantastic Mr. Fox are largely archetypes, but because the message is actually one big allegory - or, actually, a true fable - it works for that. They do not need to have real deep personalities which set them apart from every other character in film and literature to work and so the movie works as a story that is belaboring a simple message. Arguably the most important messages of The Fantastic Mr. Fox are: play to your strengths and no one benefits when we suppress our true natures for society.
Like most Wes Anderson movies, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is packed with great actors, several of whom have appeared in Anderson's other works. As one might expect, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman all have roles in The Fantastic Mr. Fox and they all do well, especially Schwartzman with Anderson's traditional dialogue stops. But this film is headlined by George Clooney (Mr. Fox) and Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox). Streep brings a more energetic vocal performance than I've ever heard from her in her live-action films, but Clooney is instantly familiar in the role of Mr. Fox. Indeed, one suspects he was channeling his part from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to deliver most of his lines. The voice acting is competent, but unsurprising given the stacked deck of this particular cast.
On DVD, The Fantastic Mr. Fox comes with a handful of deleted scenes and a commentary track. There are also featurettes on adapting the novel and the special effects (how the animation was done). These are all informative and the commentary track is entertaining as well.
Ultimately, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is entertaining and it illustrates that Wes Anderson has not lost all of his talents or abilities, which ought to give us all hope. But it is not a flawless work and fans of Anderson are likely to enjoy it more than those who are not into slow movies with righteous soundtracks and awkward dialogue patterns.
For other animated movies, please check out my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.