Talking Foxes Feel More Than You Do

11/11/2009 4:00 AM |

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson

It’s hard to say which is more tiresome: another airing of rote objections to the latest Wes Anderson film or another cataloguing of the handpicked film/fashion/design references therein. The real epiphany about the ostentatiously obsessive director’s films lies somewhere in between: the detail that strikes some as intolerable artifice is in many ways just a fondly hyperbolic representation of the human menagerie, and of any person’s constellation of qualities and attachments. Extending this mythology to a foundering family, The Royal Tenenbaums remains his strongest work, and it’s also the best support of one critic’s observation that the pain and emotion in Anderson’s films gets almost willfully ignored in these debates.

Now, with both Anderson and Spike Jonze seeing long-pursued children’s-lit projects come to fruition as they turn 40 years of age, the accusations of arrested development ring out anew, but the two directors wrangle different beasts. While Where the Wild Things Are at its best gets tenderly and uncomfortably close to a child’s intuitive, sensitive, impulsive negotiation of the world and other people, Fantastic Mr. Fox is oriented around the sly showboat of the title and his family, somewhat top-down. Humbly employed as a newspaper columnist, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) would rather go back to proving himself as master poultry thief, despite promises to his wife. But there is the notable discontent of his son, Ash, a cape-wearing runt (Jason Schwartzman), who wants Dad’s recognition but only gets shunted aside with visit of calm, multitalented cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

Elaborating upon and outright changing aspects of the book, Fantastic is more of a reimagining and reinhabiting of its source, which taken further would lead to something like Frederic Tuten’s novel Tintin in the New World. Though happily packing in adventure and rumpus and well-timed humor, Anderson adds psychological dimensions and pursues emotional complications that were not the priority in Roald Dahl’s rambunctious tale. Sure, the very autumnally colored hill-and-dale of Buckinghamshire is the setting for numerous, catchily chronicled strikes by Fox and his possum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) on the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. But albeit with the usual droll dialogue, Anderson follows through on the logic of consequences and responsibility: Fox’s to his family and, as he incurs the landscape-wrecking wrath of Bean & co., to his circle of critter friends (starting with Bill Murray’s badger lawyer). The movie—basically about Fox’s tragic desire to stay in the farm-infiltration game and bringing down disaster—is in some ways one long aftermath to the magnificent one-two prologue: first, Fox and his wife meeting on a bucolically tranquil hilltop (shot with an unusual, vertical sense of orientation), and shortly thereafter, the couple’s ill-fated quickie heist at a farm, covered in one extra-long left-to-right series of rolls and bounds scored to the Beach Boys.

It’s an up-front demo of the film’s mettle that also lays down its mix of countryside stillness and action setpieces. Just as with the busy mise-en-scene in Anderson’s (what we can now call) live-action works, there’s a built-in tension to this design, too, a sense of being tamped-down. The Foxes at centerstage have svelte, noncommittal figures and, despite their genuinely dazzling eyes and all the production talk of rippling fur, they are not especially vivacious presences; while there’s a running joke about the possum spacing out, he and the other animals have a certain noise of living about them even when doing nothing. And for some of the most frenetic activity (digging a tunnel, random dancing), Anderson makes recourse to disruptive Dig Dug-style long shots that require a very big screen; these miniature versions of the characters are so tiny and contained they look like CG avatars. One wishes for more of the subtle gestural work in the full-size scenes—the badger playing a recording of a children’s song about the farmers, or Ash’s bristly flick of the ear.

Paced out this way, Anderson’s most straightforward plotting in a while may still puzzle some children, though the movie does erupt into converging action extravaganzas. These, plus a danceable ending in a strangely and banally contemporary setting, put the movie within shouting distance of many mainstream animated features. Indeed, many of Anderson’s jokes, though far funnier, fall in the incongruency genre of self-consciousness about animals doing people things, and viewed very simply, Fox’s midlife crisis is not so very far from the almost comically dad-courting Shrek the Third (though please take my word on that). The difference is what Anderson has always attempted and what underpins most talking at cross purposes between fanatic and fed-up viewers: a layering and folding of tones and genres across every aspect of the filmmaking—a reflective, clever remove nestled alongside disarming declarations of emotional impasse, regret, etc. Here, lumps in the casual flow also manifest in some striking scenes of violence (an unusually extended office-wrecking tantrum by farmer Bean) and death (yes, it’s a switchblade-carrying rat, but along with the farmers’ assault it acknowledges a sense of risk).

Anderson’s setups tend to normalize this disconcerting pose through characters who are concertedly fussing over their own stories: Steve Zissou constantly aware of how a moment in his movie could be played and cultivating insignia-stamped paraphernalia, the Darjeeling brothers actually setting out on a journey of self-discovery, Fox clinging to the role of demonstrating fantastic derring-do (and honing the click-and-fillip that is his hi-ho-silver trademark). Fantastic, I think, wavers between suffering and benefitting from the slight remove effected by stop-motion’s possibilities: sometimes one feels the lack of flesh-and-blood vulnerability, and sometimes, like many animated creatures, the gap seems paradoxically to engender a special empathy. Anderson also makes a point of showing just how small the foxes are compared to humans, and the new perspective is always a shock. But George Clooney’s fast-talk voice seems wrong for delivering Fox’s “who am I?” musings to Kylie, or for much else other than the (very telling) toasts delivered at creature banquets. Meryl Streep’s underplaying of Mrs. Fox is more successful, and though Anderson puts too much pressure on her sudden jarring back to the reality of consequences, she formulates the stakes baldly: death, not mere dysfunction.

Will Fantastic Mr. Fox quell the raging fires of debate over Wes Anderson that keep us all from linking arms and agreeing about everything? Some ardent defenses certainly have tried to reach out, but something like Richard Brody’s New Yorker feature, despite taking pains to cite opponents, remains too infatuated to engage anyone still grumbling over matching tracksuits (who might not consider Anderson’s AmEx commercial “legendary”). For all the identification of Anderson with a demographic, his films do not feel like the instantly disposable relics that naysayers would make them out to be. To the implicit question whether the nattily attired boy wonder is growing old gracefully, Fantastic Mr. Fox and the past two films answer with a craft that is hard to complain too much about and a tendency to strike moving gracenotes more than they’re usually given credit for.

Opens November 13