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Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

by on 2011/05/25

As a child, I found few authors to compete with Roald Dahl. I enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, even The Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, though my all-time favourite was Danny the Champion of the World.

As an adult, I found few directors to disappoint me as much as Wes Anderson. Contrary to the world, it seemed, I utterly yawned through Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (In fact, a certain person of a gothic persuasion saw Life Aquatic ahead of me, and predicted I would despise it.)

So what to think of Fantastic Mr. Fox? The collision of author and auteur gave me pause at a possibly dire outcome but, time and again, I heard the rumours: this film was Anderson’s most accessible. Suffused with new hope, I put aside doubt and promptly got smacked in the brain. And it hurt.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling literary purists to arms because the narrative here has been changed. The movie’s expansion of the original tale feels appropriately organic. It adds some background, and treats the book’s premise as acts one and two. Act three has become the main adventure continued.

(As that rare geek who thoroughly disliked the never-ending ending of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, it’s got to be a compliment I liked the added plot.)

In the simplest terms, we follow a group of animals led by Mr. Fox (George Clooney). They engage in alternating attack and defense schemes, waging a war against three loathsome farmers. Fox’s entourage includes the additional voice talents of Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Meryl Streep, and Owen Wilson.

It all sounds promising on the page but, in execution, it gets the tough stuff right, and stumbles with the simple things. The source material, rural and rustic, dark and sly, has been updated in tone to something very like a sitcom.

Inter-protagonist rivalries are added, as are suggestions of the principals’ sordid pasts, too-clever catchphrases and, worst of all, a profanity placeholder. This last device amounts to adding superfluous swear words, and then substituting them with the word “cuss” . . . over and over again. What might have been cute becomes tiresome and grating.

Beyond the story and script, the production left me with mixed feelings. At a glance, the visuals are astoundingly good. Anyone with an appreciation for stop motion animation should probably see this piece. My eyes enjoyed themselves more than any other part of me. The design evokes an aesthetic I’ve seen in video games like The Neverhood and Little Big Planet.

Unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline, the crew appears content not to update its approach. While not reduced to the level of the Robot Chicken show, streamlining nonetheless takes a back seat to simplicity and speed. Figures stutter across the frame, rather than glide. Sets are cross-sectioned for a wide shot framing, one familiar to anyone who’s played with an ant farm or doll house.

Other aspects were less successful. Perhaps as a result of its low frame rate, or perhaps being an audio issue, the synching of character voices was entirely out of whack. I also didn’t care much for the music choices made, especially the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones selections. Ex nihilo musical interludes by a character named Petey are bizarre, baffling and, frankly, just unfunny.

Ultimately, I thought Fantastic Mr. Fox was a great disappointment, with far too little Roald Dahl in it. Its potential was more inspiring than the final realization. If there’s any truth to the claim this effort is Wes Anderson’s most accessible, then maybe I can well and truly give up on him. All I see here is a desperate struggle to tinker with Chicken Run.

* * *

Rated PG

87 minutes

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