Friday, December 4, 2009

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" Review

Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a different breed of animated film. It bares a disarming emotional maturity coupled with a sweetly mischievous cartoony vitality that both renews my faith in Anderson as a director and reaffirms 2009 as a hell of a year for animation.

Things were admittedly getting rocky between the indie auteur and I. "The Royal Tenenbaums," the perfect nexus of Anderson's flamboyant cinematic technique, borderline obsessive-compulsive art direction, and satirically bourgeois humor, was proceeded by two films with all the technical and artistic flare of his best work, though his families of dryly depressive characters, often portrayed by a stock catalogue of recycled actors, began feeling increasingly redundant and masturbatory. His follow-up to "Tenenbaums" was "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," a puzzlingly defended film distinguished by breathtaking visuals, smarmy caricatures, and unrepentant vacuity. 2007's "Darjeeling Limited" surpassed that film in substance, but Anderson still felt like he was running on fumes, incapable of a single wholly original character or relationship. For his grandiose symmetrical photography and audacious camerawork, the guy could be a dead ringer for Kubrick if his stories were up to snuff. Anderson needed a change, and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is everything he and his audience could have hoped for.

It's not just that the film revels in gorgeous traditional stop-motion claymation, rich with its tactile textures and charmingly rippling fur, or the magnanimity of the miniature set-pieces, or backdrops lit with the deep auburns and siennas of perpetual sunset. "Mr. Fox" has a story, and a pretty good one at that, courtesy children's author Roald Dahl, adapted for the screen by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The director's meticulous perfectionism actually feels more at home in the world of animation, which from inception presents the heightened reality he strives for. The dolly shots and intricate sets suddenly service the storytelling rather than primp Anderson's aggressive showmanship.

But contrary to what the exuberant color palette and genial clay critters might suggest, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is not really a film geared to young children, though they'll no doubt appreciate it for the animalistic silliness and amiable pace. Rather it's the subtext, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his midlife crisis, which will resonate most with adults. The film has a surprising amount to say about our own animal nature through the anthropomorphizing of its critters, who will frequently drop their civilized countenances to hiss or snarl or gobble down food, but which somehow makes them feel all the more relatable.

Case in point, Mr. Fox gives up his danger-prone life of killing chickens to raise a family (taking up a more pedestrian gig in the field of--gag!--journalism), but finds himself drawn back to his life's modus operandi for 'one last big score.' Dahl and Anderson are not afraid to portray unpleasantness, nor do they gloss over the fact that Mr. Fox does some not-especially-nice things to the birds he catches. The film never talks down to a potentially younger audience, and the difference is immediately refreshing when compared to children's films that are merely content to cast nasty creatures as pleasant surrogate humans.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is the deepest animated movie of the year, and I think the best, if only by a hair. "The Princess and the Frog" is a serious contender as well, though being a fairy tale, it often doesn't pack the punch or offer the rewarding surprises Wes Anderson's film does. It actually shares more in common with Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" than this year's Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks efforts. "Mr. Fox" is more effortlessly charming and poignant that that commendable film, and holds its own among the year's best live action as well. It's a film that pairs adventure with a markedly fresh family drama, tenderness and love with the unpredictable and the untamed.

In short, it's a wild animal.


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