Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s winter film series Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
There’s a lot of Wes Anderson in his 2009 adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, possibly as much authorship as Roald Dahl, the author of the book on which the film is based. From the first frame, we can tell that the story is going to be told on a plane, with 90 degree angles being the sharpest turns we take, from the whip-pans of the cameras to the tunnels dug by the menagerie of animals in this adapted children’s story. The tiny costumes worn by all the characters, tweed and brown and British, not to mention the hand-crafted puppet-like animals themselves, are a testament to the thoroughness of the auteur known to storyboard every second of his films before production begins. Yet beyond this, we see Anderson in the adaptation itself: quick-witted dialogue, characters at various stages of forming their own identities, and a heart searching for acceptance of some kind.
All the Andersonian absurdities are there, from a labeled fox trap to a character wearing a tube sock on their head.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is having one of those crises. Although we first meet him as a younger professional bird-stealer, soon the film fast forwards to his more humble current state as a newspaperman, a family man, and an underground homeowner. Mr. Fox has a beautiful wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), a unique and stubborn son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and a social place in town that would be the envy of any Canidae. Yet Mr. Fox pines for the excitement of his past, and soon elicits the help of Kylie Opossum (Wally Wolodarsky) to burgle the three terrifying local farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Felicity would just like Mr. Fox to be content; Ash just wants to live up to whatever expectations he lacks compared to his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson); Mr. Fox doesn’t know what he wants.
All the Andersonian absurdities are there, from a labeled fox trap to a character wearing a tube sock on their head. But here, like Anderson’s two most recent films (Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel), the absurdities are not for their own sake. A sock, fashioned as a makeshift “robber mask”, is not just worn by Ash to look goofy, rather it’s a sign of his being left behind, that he’s second best despite having no direct siblings, and that his different nature is not dissimilar than that of his father, the “wild” animal always chasing the next adventure. The sock is a badge, one of desperation and unhappiness.
It’s a visual treat. . .with a stunning narrative punch.
More than anything, this is just a beautiful film. Moonrise Kingdom would eventually be cut from much of the same cloth, sharing an overcast palate and a similarly remarkable score, with the lighter touches bringing all of the tenderness felt by turning the pages of a children’s book. Even so, while Anderson employs a series of screen titles, there’s never an effort to mimic the direct structure a picture book. However, there’s still such a fidelity to Dahl’s general ambience, an affection that you can just feel Anderson’s childhood enjoyment of the book (which was published in 1970) seep through.
To say Fantastic Mr. Fox is an enjoyable watch undercuts just how grand of an achievement it is, in narrative filmmaking and especially in the field of stop-motion animation. As gloriously unhinged as the story quickly becomes (a tree disposed from a hilltop, a tunnel filled with hard apple cider), each frame is delicately crafted with care and vision, from the smallest of threads on Mr. Fox’s sport jacket to the deliciously water-colored greys of the English sky. It’s a visual treat (there’s such joy behind the camera in just capturing the movements of these handmade puppets) with a stunning narrative punch, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who couldn’t identify with one of the mammals on screen, whether you’re a chicken-robber, a newspaper man, or maybe just trying to find your place in the world.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally, with quick-witted dialogue and a delightful story of a heart searching for acceptance.