Fantastic Mr. Fox

Writer and director Wes Anderson rebounds from the back-to-back commercial disappointments of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Ltd with his first animated film, Fantastic Mr Fox, made in the directors signature fastidious manner using old-fashioned stop-motion techniques. Roald Dahl's 1970 children’s book about a family of wily foxes and their woodland friends eluding the predatory attentions of the local humans has been transformed by Anderson, co-writer Noah Baumbach and a team of dedicated animators into an idiosyncratic, charmingly hand-crafted tale of family dysfunction and middle-class tedium.

The second talking-fox movie this year, following Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Fantastic Mr Fox opens at the same pace it maintains throughout, breakneck. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his beloved vixen wife (Meryl Streep) are out hunting chickens when they are caught in a trap. She chooses the opportunity to tell Fox she is expecting their first cub, and makes him promise to give up his dangerous, chicken-stealing ways and settle down. Twelve “fox-years” later, their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is a weedy, self-conscious teenager, further embarrassed by the arrival into the den of a talented, athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s brother).

In deference to his wife’s more refined tastes (she’s wears an apron and dabbles in landscape painting) Fox has foresworn his hunting instincts and taken a job as a newspaper columnist. But Fox’s instinctive appetite for pullet-poaching has returned. With the help of a dim-witted opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), Fox plans his “one last big job”, robbing the three nasty farmers, Boggis and Bunce and Bean (Michael Gambon), “one fat, one short, one lean”, who live on the opposite hill. Tired of the impudent fox raiding their supplies, the farmers resort to increasingly desperate measures to capture and kill him, eventually putting all of the woodland creatures (including Bill Murray’s Badger and Willem Dafoe’s Rat) in danger.

This being a Wes Anderson film, much of the joy comes from tuning into the director’s unique visual sensibility. Unlike the seamless, polished image-making of the computerised animations, Fantastic Mr Fox pursues a roughly-hewn aesthetic that gives enormous energy and wit to proceedings; as stylized and inventive as anything Anderson has done previously. The stitch-perfect costuming, brilliantly textured character design and gloriously autumnal backgrounds aside, there are a plenty of highlights: Mr Fox and his chums burrow through geologically precise soil strata, our woodland chums hide from the humans in a vast cider-bottle warehouse, they stage their climactic shootout in a gorgeous facsimile of an Olde Worlde British village, complete with sushi bar and courier service.

It might be a cartoon, but Mr Fox is still a Wes Anderson film, through and through with the same attention to detail, eclectic soundtrack, airily witty dialogue and chaptered storytelling that have delighted his fan base in the past. They should be delighted again, even if younger audience members might find much of the precious chatter about existentialism, crème brulees and yogic meditation unfathomable. Incidentally when I met Anderson during the publicity tour for The Life Aquatic, he was wearing the same copper-coloured corduroy lounge suit that Foxy sports in the movie. If you share the director’s taste for fine retro tailoring, you might just like Fantastic Mr Fox.

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