Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Human Touch: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson has always had something of a storybook aesthetic and with his latest, the consistently delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Prince of the American Eccentrics has succeeded in doing something far greater - and much more meaningful - than merely adapting a story to the screen; he has brought a picture book, the kind we all grew up, to vibrant, spirited life. Adapting Roald Dahl's picture book to the screen (the first book he ever owned), Anderson has clearly made a deeply personal work, one you can sense he's wanted to make since he was a child. But Anderson is much too sophisticated an artist to make a film for the child inside him - he fleshes out Roald Dahl's story with a distinctly mature and adult sensibility, and that makes the film more rewarding than the typical family fare that pollutes multiplexes year after year. In a time when movies, especially animated movies, merely cater to their target audience to distract them for a few hours in exchange for a 10 dollar ticket, Wes Anderson has dared to bring a personal vision to the family movie.

Wes Anderson is a film maker who finds beauty in flaws, and in Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson manifests human foibles - quirks, if you will - in the form of animals: examinations of masculinity, femininity, family, adolescence, and class are all put at the forefront of the movie, and that in itself elevates it above the diversionary family entertainment that the form of animation is unfortunately confined to. Anderson paints the portrait of an animal society where every creature has a well defined role in the animal community; be it a real estate agent, a super, a chef, a lawyer, a musician, a painter, or the author of newspaper editorials - and this is an extremely meaningful linking of a capitalistic society to that of the natural order of the animal kingdom. This examination of a civilization where each person (animal) has a different but equally meaningful place in it is perhaps Anderson's most well pronounced rumination on the true meaning of a community, a theme that has always permeated his work.

But this film is also an examination on the manner in which a civilized society neuters our animal instincts. When we're first introduced to Mr. Fox, he is a wise cracking, arrogant, and untamed wild beast; sneaking onto farms and stealing himself some dinner. Needless to say, this is a dangerous line of work, what with angry farmers who don't like having their property raided by a hungry fox. In the opening scene, Mr. Fox and his wife get caught in a fox trap on a squab farm, and his wife drops the bombshell: she's pregnant, and should they escape the farmer's clutches, she demands that he find another, less dangerous, line of work. Flash forward to 2 years (12 fox years) later, and Mr. Fox is distinctly middle class; a domesticated father, husband, and working man, writing newspaper editorials for the local rag newspaper. He wants to move out of their little hole in the ground (literally) because it 'makes [him] feel poor', and he brazenly ignores the advice of his wife and lawyer (Bill Murray, here manifested in badger form, of the law firm Badger, Beaver & Beaver) and buys himself a house a stone's throw away from the farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean: "three of the nastiest, meanest, ugliest farmers in the history of this valley". He does this despite the fact that, as his voice of reason wife points out, foxes live in holes for a reason.

The three neighboring farms light Fox's instincts afire. Fox hatches a Master Plan with the help of his loyal opossum super and friend Kylie to raid each of the local farms over the course of three nights. As he and Kylie sneak onto the farms and steal the farmer's squabs, apples, and alcoholic cider, Fox's Master Plan quickly reveals itself to be more about territoriality than survival, more about hubris than instincts. Fox is simply getting a kick out of 'cussing with their heads'. With this, Anderson reduces masculinity to its animalistic essence, as the back and forth between the animals and the farmers becomes a literal pissing contest. The farmers first attempt to simply shoot the fox, so he runs into his house. The farmers tear the tree down, the foxes dig underground. The farmers rent tractors, the foxes dig further underground. Survival, not social status, becomes the priority of Fox and his family.

However, Fox's antics create something of a crisis in the film's animal society. The farmers' attempts to dig out the Fox family displaces the other animals within his community, and this leads to the typical Andersonian third act where the lovable scamp patriarch convinces everyone to give him another chance and join up with him in an attempt to correct his wrongs. In spite of the fact that this is typical thematic material for Anderson, it feels fresh, mostly because the cast of animal puppets recontextualizes motifs that have come to define Anderson as an artist.

And yet this film is more than an animated Life Aquatic - it is a technical marvel, the most incredible technical achievement of 2009, in spite of the crock of shit James Cameron and his partisans are trying to sell. Every frame is packed with detail; I've seen the film several times and still haven't even come close to absorbing all the nuances that adorn each and every one of Anderson's delicate compositions. And the plethora of detail isn't superfluous eye candy - art design has always been a vital element of his films, saying as much as about his characters and the world they inhabit as their words and actions do. The level of detail both in the puppets and the sets are simply eye popping, and the use of animal fur is one of the many little touches that makes the world feel organic. The animals look so real that you want to reach out and touch them.

The voice acting is also some of the best I have ever heard in an animated movie. Generally in American animated films, the 'name' casting feels utterly tacked on; take the animated films of Dreamworks, for instance, where the character and the voice that emanates from it don't seem to match at all. For Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson abandoned the usual process of recording in a studio and instead did location recording; in attics, cellars, and in the woods, and that brings a certain ease and spontaneity to the voice performances. There is such a relaxed, almost naturalistic delivery by the voice actors here that you almost completely forget that you're watching puppets synced up to a recorded soundtrack. George Clooney's smooth baritone is a perfect fit for the titular sly fox, Meryl Streep drops the theatrics and is instead soothing as Mrs. Fox, and Jason Schwartzman captures adolescence in all its awkward glory as poignantly as he did in Rushmore over 10 years ago. The supporting players are Anderson's usual cast of characters, merely manifested as animal puppets, so that lends a tone of familiarity to those of us who are familiar with his previous work.

Anderson acolytes and detractors alike will notice how perfectly he has transposed his aesthetic - perhaps the most singular vision in modern American movies - to animation, and some writers have used the fact that he seems to work more comfortably within the realm of animated movies to backhandedly diss his earlier work, specifically his last two, wildly misunderstood movies; as though making idiosyncratic pictures is the worst thing a person could do (perhaps these people live in a fantasy world where too many people are making movies on their own terms). Yes, animation affords Anderson the opportunity to fashion an even more distinct world then he usually does, but Anderson's cinematic universe is and always has been intimately connected to the world we live in, and this connection has never been more evident than in the stop motion puppetry of Fantastic Mr. Fox.


Punk Ass?! said...

The Fantastic Mr. Fox sounds really good, I wish I had been informed of its' greatness when it was still in theatres. Ho HO HO Merry Christmas...

Anyway, I enjoyed your' synopsis and am glad to have read your' mini review of Avatar. That was one of those movies that doesn't really eat at you until later on, kind of like a tapeworm I guess.

I've always liked Anderson and the way his "quirkiness" cuts off a lot of the fat and gotten to the heart of the characters. The idiosyncratic performances he gets out of his actors always seems to get to the heart of things a lot better than a lot of excessively melodramatic guff we always seem to get shoveled down our throats during Oscar season. Too bad it wasn't nominated eh?
It only seems to fitting that he'd be the fella to upstage the long awaited Where the Wild things are, with a more kick ass(giving you the benefit of the doubt) "children's book" adaptation of 'is own.

Well good to see you're back in form and have taken your' writing in something of a new direction, keep at it... Jarrett

Ed Howard said...

It feels like everytime I turn around, someone else is giving this movie a rave like this. It's great to see this fun, warm movie getting so much love. I think the animated aesthetic is perfectly suited to Anderson, and I hope he pursues it further. I recently caught up with the rather problematic Darjeeling Limited, and there's just no comparison: whereas the obsessive detailing in that film felt like layering on the quirk for its own sake, in Mr. Fox each detail, each perfectly placed visual touch adds to the film's thematic weight, or enriches the characterizations, or propels the plot in some way. It's such a great movie, and such an unmitigated blast to watch.

Adam Zanzie said...

Going to be rooting for this film to win Best Animated Feature Film on Oscar night. This, and Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol (which unfortunately did not get a nod- thanks to the politically correct nominating of The Princess and the Frog) are both making my top five of the year. They ranked among the few films of 2009 that I honestly felt yielded an intimate experience in my case. Though I still admire the year's more popular films like The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds and even Avatar, none of them strike that personal chord in me that I look for in movies each year. Like last year, I've put the Oscars off to the side in exchange for a more- how shall I say this- indepdendent praise for select films.

About this review, not only is it among your best, but it also appears to be one of your most unique. It's unlike your other pieces on this site. I wanted to laugh out loud when I read that priceless "crock of shit" line. And all those usages of terms like "masculinity" and "capitalism" made me giddy: Ryan Kelly is officially the new Robin Wood!

Ryan Kelly said...

Assman, I know you're just taking me to task for being late with this review (and rightfully so), but let's not even play that card. In fact, I remember a certain Wintery night not too long ago where I was all by myself and was going to see Cameron's latest opus. But I said to hell with that. I want to see Mr. Fox again. Excitedly, I called my friend and invited him to see this most wonderful motion picture with me, but he refused. Alas, he was confining himself to scholarly activities, though he still found the time to come over to my residence to borrow a calculator. Though I'm kinda working on an Avatar review that does more or less represent my thoughts on it. I don't know, you say it doesn't eat at you until later, for me it was gnawing away at me during the entirety of its running length, as well as after it. More like a parasite for me.

Yes, the so-called 'quirk' is also part of his brand of economic storytelling. Though it's not any kind of narrative shorthand - all his pictures, especially Fox, are all extremely rich. And though he's a sentimental film maker he never lays it onto thick, mercilessly avoiding that fuck. And sometimes it's hard to tell if you're kidding or not. This movie does have a few Oscar nominations under its belt, which is honestly more than I expected. The nomination for score particularly surprises me.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ed, I agree, it's a great thing that this movie was so warmly received, though part of why I find this so gratifying is because his last two films (which I personally love) didn't exactly light the world on fire (though they both have their admirers). But it seems that Anderson's artifice just goes down smoother for most people in animated form.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, like you, this is one of the very few Oscar nominated films that I really, truly love, though there are others I like very much. I'm actually surprised it got nominated at all, but I guess there weren't many alternatives in the animated category. I won't hold my breath that it's going to win - I expect one of the two Disney pictures to win, probably the Pixar. I haven't cared about the Oscars for years, they're just a fun little diversion that manages to be wrong about almost everything.

Your comparison is flattering, to say the least. There's a tone in my writing that I want to convey and I feel like with each review I write I get closer and closer.

rob humanick said...

Hahah, I read the comments in reverse, so "Assman" came off as an insult. Seems only half-so now.

Great movie, very good review (in the same way that I think Rushmore is very good by comparison). An upset here would be golden, but I wouldn't count on it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ah, the classic Humanick double talk backhanded compliment. Thanks, I guess.

I've pretty much resigned myself to accepting that the Disney machine is simply insurmountable. The best I can hope for is a split vote effect, but I don't think Princess and the Frog has that many partisans. If a split vote were going to happen at all in that category, I would wager it would be between Coraline/Mr. Fox.