Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Perfect Pop Confection (review)

Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, opening wide today, is the movie season's most perfect pop confection, an animated feature, based on the Roald Dahl children's book, that's one of the funniest and most entertaining films of the year.

The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the last two films from Anderson, largely were treated by critics as a series of unfortunate set pieces. That assessment, in retrospect, feels a bit harsh; each of those movies had its charms, including appealing performances by some of the filmmaker's usual suspects, and meticulously constructed sets lovingly framed by an auteur who knows from quirkiness.

The same might be said for Fox, a stop-motion gem suggesting that animation, a format allowing Anderson complete control over his tableaux, could be most naturally suited to his sensibility. Viewed through the lens of this film, Anderson's earlier movies might be thought of as overloaded with super-sized miniatures; with Fox he gets the compositions just right.

The script, co-written by Anderson and Life Aquatic collaborator Noah Baumbach, has the title character, a sleek, seemingly suave character in burnt orange fur, dressed in brown corduroy and voiced by George Clooney, facing a career crisis. A reformed chicken thief, now enjoying a respectable career as a newspaper columnist (huh?), Fox can't keep his mind from turning to thoughts of raiding the three farms in direct view of his new treetop digs.

Obstacles? Yes, there are a few, including Fox's loyal wife (Meryl Streep), who's too savvy not to notice that her husband has returned to his criminal ways; wise-cracking, oddball son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who really needs his dad's attention; and Bean, a tough farmer (Michael Gambon) out for revenge on Fox and his family and friends.

The look of Fox, which boasts a handcrafted feel marked by ruffles and ridges and prickly animal fur that viewers might want to reach out and touch, is a constant revelation.

The dialogue is smart, funny and delivered rapid fire: "Redemption? Yes," Fox says about one villain who comes to a tragic end, but not before helping out the good guys. "But in the end he's just another dead rat in a trash can behind a Chinese restaurant."

The onscreen motion is lovably herky-jerky, and the superb voice cast also includes Willem Dafoe as the aforementioned aggressive rat, and a pair of Anderson regulars - Bill Murray as Badger, and Owen Wilson as Coach Skip.

All that, and the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Burl Ives, Jarvis Cocker, and Art Tatum on the soundtrack, too.

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