Wednesday, November 25, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX—Peter Galvin's Review

How strange it must have been to be tasked with adapting Wes Anderson's eccentric and idiosyncratic live-action style to the animation required for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mark Gustafson was the brave soul who took on that task when Henry Selick left the project to animate Coraline. During a Q&A session following the San Francisco International Animation Festival screening of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Animation Director Gustafson recalled how Anderson's unyielding dedication to his vision for the film made him very uncomfortable as a professional animator. Though out of his element, Anderson never allowed the once-accepted boundaries of stop-motion animation to compromise his vision. It's a good thing too, as it's Anderson's background in live-action film that most likely makes Fantastic Mr. Fox feel so different from other popular animated fare.

Based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl, Fox is the story of the titular Mr. Fox, a retired chicken thief who risks his happy home life for one last hit on the three meanest farmers in town: Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Spying on their farms from his tree-home, Fox concocts a secret scheme to help himself to their supply of chickens, ducks and cider. It's a breezy set-up and it initially feels like the story might have painted itself into a corner, but it's soon clear that Mr. Fox is less concerned with retaining a tight plot than with creating a rapid sense of forward progression. I'm unfamiliar with the source material, and the slapdash story might have been unavoidable, but it's a negligible concern when the editing and dialogue are as tight as they are in this film.

As a game of one-upmanship begins between Fox and the farmers, we start to see evidence of Anderson's non-traditional approach to animation. Characters often are jarringly replaced with different models—though recognizable, their sizes and shapes look noticeably different—and little imperfections in backgrounds and character design are perceptible throughout. Everything is very DIY and it's clear the filmmakers have chosen to focus on creating a sense of wonder and whimsy over polish and predictability. Instead of pulling the viewer out of the film, the concept of enhancing the gaudiness on screen only adds to its playfulness.

The voice-actors all are obviously in their element working with Anderson; many culled from previous films the director has made. George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman are ideal choices for the Fox family, and Dumbledore himself—Michael Gambon—makes for a devilish foil as the most cunning of the three farmers, Mr. Bean. Even with lock-on voice talent, the film is never overly reliant on them, and uses affecting facial close-ups, expressions and silences, which account for a lot of the film's humor.

Though he had little experience as an animator, Fantastic Mr. Fox is recognizable as a "Wes Anderson movie" through and through. I'm not so sure the zany approach used here would have fared as well in live-action—it's a lot more Life Aquatic wackiness than Tenenbaums introspection; but, it bears recalling that Life Aquatic's focus on humor over emotion marked that film as a critical failure. Mileage may vary, but I found Anderson's oddball take on a children's film a blast to watch. As an animated film it feels both daring and fresh.

Cross-published on
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.

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