Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson's signature style shines through

Fantastic Mr. Fox (animation, adventure, comedy)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray and Michael Gambon

20th Century Fox | 2009 | 87 min | Rated PG | Released Mar 23, 2010

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1

English, French, Mandarin (Simplified and Traditional), Portuguese, Spanish

50GB Blu-ray Disc
DVD copy (with digital copy)

The Film 4.5/5

Wes Anderson’s films are traditionally quirky and full of complex themes, and his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is no different. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s animated (stop motion); this material is not targeted at children.

When we join the story, Mrs. Fox (Streep) is telling Mr. Fox (Clooney) that she’s pregnant. The two proceed to rob a chicken farm and narrowly escape capture. Mrs. Fox makes him promise to look for other work now that they are about to become parents. Mr. Fox agrees and finds a job writing a newspaper column. 

Mr. Fox settles down in his new life, but always regrets giving up his old ways. He’s also tired of living in a hole in the ground and wants a better home for his family. He goes to see Badger (Murray), who advises him about properties for sale in the area. Fox wants a house near three local farms, but Badger suggests that the neighborhood is too dangerous. The local children even have a rhyme about the farmers:

Boggis, Bunce and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were nonetheless equally mean

Fox is aware of the danger, but yearns for his former chicken-stealing days. As Anderson regularly reminds us, these are wild animals. Fox can’t deny his nature and buys the new house so that he can be close to the three farms.

His decision goes directly against his promise to his wife and that was his first mistake.

There’s a lot of humor in the film, but it’s generally quite subtle. The family sits down to eat dinner and they eat like wild animals. The food is gone in seconds. Their son, Ash, is moody and craves attention from his father. He spits on the floor when he’s angry or disappointed and he clearly has problems. When his cousin Kristofferson comes to stay, the situation worsens. Fox seems to favor Kristofferson over his own son and compliments him constantly.

Forget that we’re dealing with animals for a moment and think about the story. If that happened in a regular movie, we would be dealing with a typical family drama. Husband and wife break promises and have trust issues, while their son is being raised by parents who don’t understand him. This is not the kind of story that small children would understand, although some of the scenes are funny and contain action that would appeal to a child.

Fox enlists the help of Kylie Opossum and the two steal chickens from Boggis. The action is typical animated fare and the way the two sneak around is funny. They lace blueberries with a sedative to get past the dogs and the way the dogs react is also funny. They successfully steal from Bunce and plan to stop once they steal cider from Bean. For the final robbery, Ash wants to come along. Fox won’t let him, but allows Kristofferson to take part. He seems to have very little idea that such a decision could hurt his son’s feelings.

The robberies are fun to watch, especially when the animals wear bandit hats. It reminds me of the robbery in Bottle Rocket when the participants decide to wear similar hats even though their victims have already seen their faces.

Ash yearns to be an athlete and wants to emulate his father’s success at Whack-Bat (a game which parodies cricket). Kristofferson is a balanced individual who regularly meditates and knows karate. Ash is extremely jealous of his cousin and his ability to win his father’s approval.

The three robberies annoy the farmers, so Bean (Gambon) decides to organize the trio and plans to kill Fox. This is where the film starts to take on a more serious tone. Mrs. Fox discovers that her husband has been lying to her and scratches his face in a fit of temper. This scene annoyed one of my friends who expected the film to be lighthearted and suitable for the whole family. Mrs. Fox acts like the wild animal she is. There’s another scene in which one of the animals is maimed. Although it’s presented in a humorous way, it could disturb people.

The remainder of the film deals with the three farmers finding ways to threaten the existence of Fox and his friends. They escape by tunneling deeper, but face the threat of starvation if they don’t find a solution. Some of the other animals resent Fox for putting them in such a dangerous situation.

There’s considerable peril which could worry small children, and a lot of humor which would probably fly over their heads. It was only given a PG-rating, but be aware that not every child will like this harsh world. The animals are true to their nature.

The reason I like the film so much is the style of humor. Like Bottle Rocket and The Darjeeling Limited, the characters speak with a sense of irony or sarcasm and most of the humor is tongue-in-cheek. It feels similar to Tarantino or the Coen brothers at times. There’s no swearing, but every character uses the word "cuss" in situations in which they would normally swear. I found that particularly funny. One animal questions why a ransom note was made using words cut out of a magazine when everyone already knew the identities of the kidnappers. That’s also funny to me. The missions all have elaborate titles and remind me of the way Tarantino uses chapters in his stories.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is an exercise in style. Mr. Fox himself is very stylish, dressing smartly and using his trademark whistle when he thinks he’s being clever or cool. Clooney was a great choice for the part and the other actors all do a good job too.

The story is essentially about a dysfunctional family and shows how Ash attempts to come to terms with his existence. Will Mr. Fox eventually become a better father? Will Ash grow up and take responsibility for his own actions? Do Mr. and Mrs. Fox strengthen their marriage, or will the trust issues tear them apart? There’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

Video Quality 5/5
The look of Fantastic Mr. Fox is virtually flawless. The frames were shot digitally with a high quality camera and the detail is superb throughout. You can see every hair on the puppets and the stitches in their clothing. Some scenes look deliberately flat when shot from a distance and the color palette is full of brown and yellow tints, but that’s all intentional too. I didn’t spot any errors in a single shot and the presentation looks as good as anything I’ve seen.

Audio Quality 4/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has its moments, despite the quiet nature of the film. Most of the story is driven by dialogue, but there are occasional bursts of sound in scenes involving music or explosions. The rear speakers aren’t used prominently, but there’s no cause for complaint overall.

Special Features 3/5

The features were all shot in high definition.

Making Mr. Fox Fantastic (45 minutes) – A six-part feature which can also be viewed all at once. Topics include the look of the film, how it was adapted from the book and how the puppets were made. There’s an in-depth look at the filming process and a look at the actors behind the voices. The final segment shows Bill Murray talking to some of the animators.

A Beginner’s Guide to Whack-Bat (1 minute)

Fantastic Mr. Fox: The World of Roald Dahl (3 minutes) – Touching on the main points shown in the opening feature.

Trailer (2 minutes)

Fantastic Mr. Fox has a lot of intelligent humor and subtle charm and it’s clearly aimed at adult audiences. I wouldn’t rule out showing the film to children, but be aware that wild animals sometimes show their true nature and their world can be brutal. I’m a fan of Wes Anderson’s work and this met all my expectations in terms of style and humor. It’s one of the most complex and unusual animated titles I have seen and recommended for fans of subtle humor. The world is an interesting place to visit and the film is a lot of fun if you go in with the right expectations.

Overall score 4.5/5

Click here to see where Fantastic Mr. Fox ranks among my Top 20 animated films.

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