Fantastic Mr. Fox Review
Fantastic Mr. Fox is Wes Anderson’s first to be taken from another source as well as his first animation. That would be Roald Dahl’s children’s novel of the same name, of course. Yet from the opening credits onwards this is very much an Anderson film. In fact, Dahl’s original could be considered nothing more than a mere template upon which the writer-director is able to adorn with his various idiosyncratic touches and ideas. In essence the story remains the same - our eponymous woodland hero decides upon a string of elaborate heists, if you will, taking from the three humans living nearby (Boggis, Bunce and Bean) and their respective poultry farms and cider factory. But in Anderson’s hands it also keys in nicely with his cinematic output to date, most notably his two multi-character narratives, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (with which it shares co-writer Noah Baumbach).
The key change is an extension of this narrative. Anderson and Baumbach add a prologue, offer up a more elaborate finale and also throw in a handful of new characters. At first it may appear that this ‘beefing up’ is simply to ensure a feature length running time; and at barely an hour and a half, Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson’s shortest since the days of Rushmore and Bottle Rocket. Yet the decision was more likely a means of ensuring the director his distinctive authorial stamp. The new prologue and one additional character, in particular, allow primarily for a greater emphasis on family dynamics. Opening with a “twelve years earlier” sequence in which Mr. Fox promises his pregnant wife that he will give up the hunting in favour of a more respectable vocation, we immediately arrive at a situation whereby his later, and secretive, raids on the farms and factory can only put a strain on the marriage. Meanwhile, the appearance of Mr. Fox’s nephew from out of town similarly puts a strain on his relationship with his teenage son (in fox years, that is). In other words, the heists are almost there solely to dramatic hook; Anderson’s true concerns lie with something more intimate and character driven.
In this respect Fantastic Mr. Fox’s casting becomes integral to Anderson’s means. Opting for an all-star line-up as opposed to professional voice artists, he (unsurprisingly given how this is an Anderson film) goes about reuniting many of the names with whom he has worked with in the past. Thus Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon and Jason Schwartzman rub shoulders with newer additions, most notably George Clooney and Meryl Streep providing the vocals for Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Moreover, those who do return to the Anderson fray are undoubtedly playing on prior performances: Wilson, as the cousin from out of town isn’t too far removed from the son Zissou never knew he had in The Life Aquatic; Defoe similarly plays on his role in that movie (with an added dash of Bobby Peru from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart); and Schwartzman’s mixed-up teenage son has more than an air of Rushmore’s Max Fischer about him. In fact, the casting all round seems to have been predicated as much around the given actor’s persona as it does the character they are playing. Clooney relays the charm that has served him so well in so many films, for example, or there’s Gambon’s villain Franklin Bean who, to this viewer at least, seemed to channelling a great deal of his similarly despicable portrayal in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
Yet Anderson isn’t merely trading on past efforts. Perhaps perversely he has also created an animation that is, predominantly, about the dialogue. Indeed, it is hard to think of another example that is quite so verbose as Fantastic Mr. Fox. Furthermore, the rat-a-tat rhythms and idiosyncrasies that have featured throughout the Anderson oeuvre so far are in no way diminished by the switch in technique - and of course that all-star line-up laps up every word. There is a confidence about the proceedings that marks this as something of a return to form for Anderson following the slightly lacking combination of Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited. It is hard not to escape the feeling that the additional focus and command that the process of animating this tale allowed for has spread throughout the entire production. Maybe there is even a sense that Anderson prefers working in animation given the amount of command it allows him. Every beat, every song cue (from the Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ to an animated Jarvis Cocker delivering a cute little musical interlude), every intertitle feels just so. Of course we have seen such elements in The Royal Tenenbaums, say, or The Life Aquatic. But arguably never to quite such an exacting detail. And yet, Fantastic Mr. Fox never feels too formal or too precise - cold, in other words - simply because there is too much going on for the film to become nothing more than about its own techniques. The bottom line is that it is terrifically entertaining.
However, all this talk of Anderson and his earlier works does prompt the question as to where exactly Fantastic Mr. Fox’s intended audience lies. Certainly, there are no qualms in recommending the film to fans of its maker. But as family entertainment the lines become blurred somewhat. It doesn’t, for example, exude the universality found in Pixar’s best films, or even some of their lesser works. Nor does it feel primed particularly towards children as was the case with Aardman’s Flushed Away, say, or the vast majority of Dreamworks’ output. And yet, there is also plenty for them to enjoy: the heist and later chase sequences are sharply paced and littered with throwaway gags that are unlikely to go over their heads; the film is, of course, a visual treat, if perhaps in different ways from Up, for example; and there are numerous moments which appeal to both ends of the family audience spectrum, such as the foxes wolfing down their food in an animalistic manner - at once a great visual pun and a wry subversion of their otherwise anthropomorphic characteristics. Ultimately, however, I do feel that the satisfaction will lie most prominently with the adult contingent. Fantastic Mr. Fox caters more readily to Anderson’s concerns - and therefore those of his fans - than it does to his desire to find a wider audience, if indeed such an intent was there in the first place.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is being released in the UK on both standard definition DVD and Blu-ray. This is the SD disc under review and its presentation is little short of superb. Original aspect ratio is adhered to and anamorphically enhanced. The print from which it has been taken is in flawless condition and as such the level of detail and strength of the colours both appear to be exactly as intended. No doubt the Blu would make that detail come through just that little bit more - and given the amount of effort put into the design such considerations are no doubt key - but there really is nothing to fault here. Similarly the soundtrack, presented in DD5.1, ably copes with all that is required. Dialogue is crisp and the various effects likewise, whilst the choice of songs is never once either diminished by or overpowering of either. However, the disc is somewhat skimpy on the extras front. Only three featurettes, two of which (focussing on ‘The Look’ and ‘The Cast’) are really quite informative and thankfully free of EPK-style standard issue empty words. The third, a very brief look at the game of ‘Whack-a-Bat’ which features briefly in the film, is somewhat redundant given that the main feature does the exact same thing within the narrative, and much better and wittier too. Furthermore, given the extras-heavy discs we have previously seen of Anderson’s earlier works, there is also the nagging feeling that this single-disc edition will be surpassed by a far superior package somewhere down the line.