Wes Anderson’s films have always featured a kind of play-acting, from the cops-and-robbers shenanigans of Bottle Rocket to the spiritual tourism of The Darjeeling Limited, with his characters trying on different personas for size. Maybe that’s why Fantastic Mr. Fox, itself a new kind of persona, fits so clearly and cleverly into Anderson’s body of work, which helps make it such an unexpected joy from start to finish — the director’s best since Rushmore. A typically easygoing Anderson cast, anchored by a nicely understated George Clooney in the title role, inhabits a world of talking animals who are almost, but not quite, human. With a lo-fi stop-action style that well suits the Roald Dahl vibe plus an uncompromised deployment of the director’s stylistic trademarks, Mr. Fox simply follows that golden rule of great kids’ movies by declining to pander to anybody’s idea of what a kid should or shouldn’t find amusing. Helped along by a suitably droll screenplay, everyone involved exudes heaps of effortless cool — this film is the kind of suave you get when you’re having just huge amounts of fun.
The title character’s concerns are recognizably those of a middle-aged guy feeling a little hemmed in by his real-estate investments and maybe a little marginalized by family life. He promised Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) a long time ago that he would settle down and renounce the wild, dangerous pursuits of his youth. But, hilariously, he can’t resist his longing to get back in the henhouse and snap some chicken necks. That Fox makes his living in that most endangered of careers, newspaper writing, adds to the film’s general sense of nostalgia. Fox has a son, the awkward pre-teen Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who’s upstaged and irritated by the arrival of his cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Anderson’s brother Eric), an athlete and relative dynamo. The story gets moving when Fox buys a new home close to the triple treat of three different factory farms run by businessmen whimsically named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Perhaps Fox isn’t as fast as he used to be — for a while, chicken dinners become de rigeur, but when the farmers catch up to him, they anger and, let’s face it, emasculate him by blasting his furry tail off. (One of the men is seen wearing it later as a necktie.) Fox learns that it’s hard to plot revenge when you’re running for your life, but he does eventually come out on top. Or underneath, as the case may be. Owen Wilson shows up in a giggle-worthy cameo as a team-sports coach, explaining the rules of a ball game that makes Quidditch look sensible, and Bill Murray has a nice turn as Fox’s lawyer, Badger.
Anderson has succeeded in making an animated film that’s mostly child-friendly but resorts neither to the condescending, quasi-hip attitudes that seem de rigueur in the era of Cartoon Network nor to slavish mimicry of the golden Pixar cinema-of-quality formula. One of the running jokes in the film is the indiscriminate substitute of the word cuss for all manner of interjections and expletives. I can’t remember all of the permutations, but they include the use of cussing as an adjective, what the cuss as an expression of bewilderment, and — my favorite — clustercuss to describe a badly muddled situation. I’ve already noticed offended online commenters (in the wilds of the IMDB discussion boards) making the case that even this kind of reference to profanity is inappropriate in “a kids’ movie,” but what they don’t understand, of course, is that Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t exactly a kids’ movie. It’s just kid-friendly. Anderson wasn’t willing to have his film’s raconteurs completely give up their right to express themselves freely. The word-substitution gag is a wry compromise, and I think any child old enough to understand the concept of naughty words is going to get a big kick out of it. And what if you’re the parent of a less worldly tyke who asks, innocently, “What’s a clustercuss?” Well, you can just tell them the truth: “too many cooks.”
Visually, Fantastic Mr. Fox is endearingly rough around the edges. Anderson reportedly demanded that his animators do everything the hard way, forgoing the kind of CG shortcuts and polish that give films like Coraline their impressive surface gloss, but I much prefer it like this. The stop-action puppetry here is whimsical, but it has the rough magic of Jan Svankmajer about it as well — the animals are fabricated caricatures of the real thing, but with an impressive physical quality that you still don’t get from computer-generated imagery (never mind those borderline grotesque Robert Zemeckis puppet shows that seem to arrive, replete with the whiff of stale popcorn, every November). It feels like it has been touched by human hands, and that makes a huge difference. Of course, a 3D Henry Selick film based on a Neil Gaiman book is a much safer bet than this incredible anachronism, a cinematic artifact so hopelessly out-of-fashion that in a multiplex environment it feels almost avant garde. Fantastic Mr. Fox may have a hard time gaining traction with babes who’ve been suckling too long at the tit of shiny CG animation, but if it remains a minority taste among the wee set, I’m betting it will have a long and happy life with more discerning members of the general audience. Hipsters, bless them, seem to be embracing it. For Anderson’s fans, it’s an instant classic.