Before this year, some may have called stop motion animation a dying art form. What with its tireless work schedule - being able to get 1 – 3 minutes of footage done in a full days work - it seems a cruel taskmaster to follow. Yet this year has already given us Coraline, an amazing piece of animation from some veterans of this technique since they were behind Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas. Plus this year's AFI film festival had three stop motion animation films, two of them from foreign countries. The third film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, however, comes from Wes Anderson, the director behind Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Bottle Rocket. Nothing in his oeuvre, but a few sequences in The Life Aquatic, has given any indication that he might take this incredibly brave sharp right turn into stop motion. Yet, he has and he shows no hindrance from it. The movie is distinctly Wes Anderson, from the camera placements and movements to the eccentric and quirky characters. The story telling style is all his and it is wonderful.
The story is Roald Dahl's, writer of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "Matilda" and "James and the Giant Peach". It's a 52 page children's tale about a fox who, at night, steals chickens, ducks, and turkeys from three wealthy and ill tempered farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean. The three find out their stock is being depleted and decide to put an end to Mr. Fox. They stake out his house and when he comes out they shoot at him. He escapes but in the process he loses his tail. Then Fox and his family decide to run away by digging deep underground as the three farmers start using spades and shovels and even bulldozers to get at him. There is a lot of license taken with the story as Dahl's book ends with the farmers waiting it out just outside the foxhole until the fox shows himself again and it is indicated that there they will wait forever. This does not, however, an entertaining film make. So the screenplay writers, Anderson and Noah Baumbach, used Dahl's story as an Act 2 and added more story to the beginning and the end thus rounding it out better for the silver screen. Plus we get chapter titles that show up on screen and lead us through the story.
This is a film for children to grow up with. There has been a lot of debate on children's films lately being good for children. This one, I feel, is. There are a few things in this film parents need to be attentive to before bringing their children. One is the action (since a fox gets his tail shot off in one scene plus there is lots more action with guns and bombs). Another is the characters use of the word "cuss" as a euphemism for any curse word such as "Oh my cuss!" and "What the cuss!" and Mr. Fox even calls a terrible plan a "clustercuss." Other then that it is very "kid-friendly" and moves fast, very fast. The kiddies won't be bored easy as the colorful pictures and information come at them from talking animals quickly and furiously. There is humor and content here for adults also. The animals talk about Real Estate problems and how the locations of their trees or dens have affected their asking price. At another point, Mr. Fox is trying to jimmy a door and asks to use someone's credit card. The mole gives him a Platinum Card and he and Fox go into a discussion of how Mole was able to get a Platinum card and Mole's credit rating. Plus it would not be an Anderson, or a Baumbach, film without characters wondering about existentialism or being dysfunctional in some way. These things will definitely go over the children's heads but it means that there is something to entertain everyone.
My only two complains are this. I know that famous names sell tickets, even if you only hear their voices, but listening to George Clooney's and Bill Murray's voices come out of animated puppets took me out of the film. They are just too familiar. The same thing happened to me as I was watching Where the Wild Things Are. There's something about sitting there and saying "That sounds just like Danny Ocean or Dr. Peter Venkman." I bet the actors who once made a living out of just doing voices are very upset at this new turn of events. I blame Robin Williams and Aladdin. The other thing is that the figurines that are being animated have hair and fur on them which often move radically and wildly apart from anything happening to the characters on screen due to them being repositioned for every frame. Also, since there are often very tight shots of the characters faces and we get to see every detail, the figurines can often come across as weird and creepy though I know the filmmakers don't intend them to.
Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. This is darn good writing that stays very true to Dahl's original vision while mixing, but not compromising, Anderson's flair and sensibilities. It is full of likable characters, especially Jason Schwartzman voiced Ash, Mr. Fox's son who is trying to prove himself and find his own way of being fantastic. It is full of detail and jokes that will entertain all audiences and, I feel, children who see it now will continue to love it as they grow older and as all of the other jokes start to make more sense to them.