As a movie that's essentially about a barely read newspaperman who selfishly looks to escape a life he's grown disillusioned with, only to come crashing back to reality when it affects others around him, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" cuts way too close to the bone for me. And that's why I love it so.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney, oozing that trademark charm even when he's supplying only his voice) should be living the sweet life. He works as a newspaper columnist. He's married to a devoted wife (Meryl Streep). He has a sullen, cape-wearing son (Jason Schwartzman) he's kinda proud of. (He seems to be more proud of his visiting nephew.) But he just can't sit back, relax and be content. He upgrades the fam from a hole to a fancy tree he can't afford. And, after noticing the large farms he's living next to, he gets the itch to go back to his old farm-looting ways.
"Fox" could very well be the most colorful, sympathetic and highly entertaining take on midlife crisis I've seen yet. I don't think that was Roald Dahl's intention when he published the beloved children's novel in 1970, but that's what Wes Anderson sees in the story. And while it still may be a shock to fans that their beloved, hipster director has basically made an animated kiddie flick, I don't think I've enjoyed myself at a Wes Anderson movie more than I did during "Fox." And I've generally liked the guy's past work.
Unlike the overprivileged, dysfunctional families that previously have existed in Anderson's movies, the Fox family is a working-class one. They live in a community of badgers, otters and other critters (including Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Owen Wilson as a lawyer and a coach, respectively) trying to make both a decent living and a harmonious environment. When Fox goes on his little chicken (and duck and goose and even cider) run, with his possum landlord (former "Simpsons" writer Wally Wolodarsky, delightfully droll) as his partner-in-crime, the powerful farmers (led by a seething Michael Gambon) go on a rampage looking for him. And if that means destroying Fox's tree home - and the whole hillside - then so be it.
While Mr. Fox goes into outfoxing mode to outwit the farmers and keep his family and neighbors out of harm's way, he eventually realizes he's doing more harm than good. "I'm just a wild animal," Fox pitifully admits, before coming to terms with the responsibility-filled life he has now rather than the responsibility-free life he used to have. (What father in the audience isn't gonna feel that?)
There are a lot of lessons dropped in "Fox." Among them, the importance of family, friends, the environment, being a man - all that jazz. Thankfully, Anderson and frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach don't hit you over the head with them in the script. Besides, Anderson is more caught up (read: having fun) helming a stop-motion animated film, creating a world of witty, woodland creatures who act more flawed and human than past Anderson characters.
It makes you wonder why it took so long for him to do one in the first place. His trademark filmmaking quirks seem to work better when they're being done in a cartoonish context. Even his usual flair for hitting us with classic rock tunes from the '60s works well here, especially since they mingle in the soundtrack with Burl Ives, Art Tatum and Jarvis Cocker (who actually turns up to lead a campfire song in one priceless moment). Anderson certainly takes meticulous detail in creating visually distinctive characters, both human and four-legged. And despite the movie looking very much like an Aardman Animations production, Anderson worked with the crew who did Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride."
I hate to use the cliché that "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a movie both kids and adults can enjoy, but it's true. It's even educational: one scene has Fox (and the movie) clocking off the Latin names of his animal brethren. You definitely won't get that in "Planet 51"!
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