Fantastic Mr. Fox
starring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman
20th Century Fox – Indian Paintbrush – Regency
This is the children’s cartoon we were never allowed to see. Suave Mr. Fox (Clooney) is trapped in a mid-life crisis, looks like a cross between David Bowie and a young Hugh Hefner, and in his youth he stole more than a few chickens. He married to his sweetheart (Streep) and settled down to subterranean life and writing an unread column in the local rag. Now he wants to move up into a tree — it’s gorgeous, but in the marginal part of town. Across the valley are the farms of Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and the particularly vicious Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon). They’re all in the poultry or apple business, and well-known fox haters. Mr. Fox decides to make one last set of raids with his buddy, Wiley the Opossum (Wally Wolodarsky). He’s so successful the farmers declare war on him, his family, and pretty much anything else cute and furry in the neighborhood. As the fleeing wildlife digs deeper and deeper into the ground, his son, un-athletic Ash (Schwartzman), makes peace with his nearly perfect cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Ultimately, the animals fight the farmers to a stalemate, and end up in a new, more urban existence. If you squint hard, it’s the story of English enclosure and the rise of industrialism, and if you take it at face value, it’s the entertaining antics of fuzzy anti-heroes.
This movie stands apart for its elegant stop-motion animation and its subtle, restrained humor. Rather than race to the easy joke and then make sure even the slowest audience member gets the punch line, this movie subtly sets up very sophisticated humor, eases through it, and makes you double take “Wait! That was FUNNY!” Scenes mimic West Side Story‘s gang fights, a jug band lead by Mr. Petey (Jarvis Cocker) pops up half way through the movie with a camera man on the side recording “The Making of…” documentary, and Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off and complains he can’t sleep on his back for two weeks. There’s explicit consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, chicken are killed on screen, and Mr. Fox cusses freely when under pressure. Yet, underlying the humor are well-developed characters and situations. The romance between Mr. and Mrs. Fox feels genuine and caring, both Kristofferson and Ash are misfits, but not so distorted they make clowns of themselves, and the supporting badgers, rats, weasels, and miscellaneous poultry all do more than just stand there looking cute and spouting off demographically-researched pop culture gags. They feel, they care, and they are as alive as Bilbo Baggins or the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are.
Most modern animation relies on power visuals to gloss over weakly conceived stories that didn’t survive the meat grinder of the studios, but ever so often someone sneaks a heartfelt story under the radar screen, and those of us who suffer through CGI hell now have something to treasure. Fantastic Mr. Fox is infused with the spirit of Rocky and Bullwinkle rather than Barney the Dinosaur, and I’m sure Roald Dahl, author of the original book, would be pleased.
Fantastic Mr. Fox: www.fantasticmrfoxmovie.com