Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Mr. Fox' really is fantastic

The Fantastic Mr. Fox can't suppress his inner wild.

I have no idea whether children will enjoy Wes Anderson's stop-action animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. And you know what? I don't particularly care. All I know is that I was totally entertained by this witty and beautifully detailed adaptation of a Roald Dahl story. For me, the mixture of sly humor, talking animals and terrific voice work resulted in one of the year's more amusing movie experiences.

Let me emphasize the point about voice work. Mr. Fox contains some of the best voices to grace an animated feature in this or any other year. George Clooney is perfectly cast as Mr. Fox, a married fox who writes a newspaper column, but can't quite suppress his inner wildness. Far fetched? Not really: I've known columnists like that.

Meryl Streep provides the voice of Mrs. Fox; she understands her husband's adventurous streak, but hopes he'll keep it in check. Jason Schwartzman gives voice to Ash, their son, and Eric Anderson helps bring Kristofferson to life; he's a visiting cousin who happens to excel at all the activities Ash has trouble mastering, most notably athletics.

Meticulously constructed backgrounds add to a story in which Mr. Fox decides it's time to move his family out of a hole in the ground and into a tree house, a real estate deal that his attorney Badger (Bill Murray) advises against. But Mr. Fox wants to move on up, and he's not in an advice-taking mood.

Once ensconced in his new home, Mr. Fox is tempted by the livestock and produce of three farmers -- Boggis, Bunce and Bean. With an assist from Kylie the opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox raids the farms in search of delectable treats. The farmers retaliate, organizing under the leadership of Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon). This trio of ill-tempered humans tries all manner of tricks to exterminate the Fox -- and most of the rest of the animal population in the area.

We root for the animals at the same time as we enjoy Clooney's witty delivery and the humor served up by the rest of the cast. You should know, though, that Anderson's sympathy for animals doesn't extend to some of their prey -- chickens, for example. Despite Clooney's breezy delivery, Fox's instructions on chicken killing are brutally blunt.

Though he has inspired a near cultish following, Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited) isn't one my favorite directors. But I enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox more than anything Anderson has done to date. Its anarchic spirit and earthy humor make for a fine time at the movies. Eat your hearts out, kids.

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