Dir. Wes Anderson, US/UK, 2009, 87 mins
Voice Cast: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon
Review by Matthew Rodgers
In this age when quality dictates that the narrative should “ go dark ”, it's strange that the Roald Dahl back catalogue hasn't been plundered more extensively beyond that of the cloying Willy Wonka remake. There has been the odd Giant Peach and the oft forgotten Witches, but now his material finds itself filtered through the unique visionary genius of Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic director, Wes Anderson.
Mr and Mrs Fox (Clooney and Streep) live in modest surroundings with their young cub Ash (Jason Schwartzman). After years of suppressing his wild animal instincts by writing a much ignored column in the local paper, Mr. Fox decides that a return to his old ways of chicken theft will bring more satisfaction to his domestic life. Targeting the local farmers – Boggis, Bunce and Bean – he endangers not only his family but the entire menagerie of stop-motion critters Anderson has painstakingly created.
Rough around the edges would be the kindest way to describe the aesthetics of this endearing little fable. Even the Wombles may have turned their noses up at it amidst the CGI and sometimes pointless 3-D that currently dominates the animation landscape. It is however thoroughly charming in its rendering, as jump frames and exaggerated rigidity of character movement start to generate warm laughs as opposed to any mocking sniggers.
The voice work is also exemplary. Anderson and co-scripter Noah Baumbach had the actors perform the physicality of the roles rather than just bark soullessly into a microphone and the results show. Clooney is perfect for the superbly confident and sometimes heroic Mr. Fox, as cocksure here as he ever was as Danny Ocean , while Streep underplays her vocals as the down-to-and under-the-earth vixen of the family. A touching exchange with Mr. Fox against a shimmering backdrop provides the film's emotional high-point. Murray is as sardonic as expected as the Lawyer Badger and Kylie the possum is sparingly, but brilliantly vocalised by little-known scriptwriter Wally Wolodarsky.
The most Fantastic Fox award goes to Jason Schwartzman as the insular Ash; full of pithy one-liners that range from spiteful to delightful, his delivery perfectly matches the mannerisms of the put upon little “athlete”, who has a hilarious and rather disgusting tendency to spit his way through the story.
In the same way that Nick Park makes his mark on the Wallace and Gromit films, it's easy to recognise Anderson 's indentations all over his peculiar puppets. The use of chapters, the wonderful soundtrack and the eclectic family dynamics – the script decided to focus on the family by changing the four unnamed cubs in the book to a single son, Ash - all help to bring warmth to his somewhat niche dialogue. Plus the extension of Dahl's world with creations such as the game of “whack-bat” makes this a suitable companion piece to his already wonderfully unique back-catalogue.
What stops this from being truly “Fantastic” is the overriding feeling that it would have been just at home as a seasonal half hour special rather than stretching it to 87mins. It's also hard to tell who will get most out of it. Younger children might not respond to the dramatic weight of the patriarchal plot and boredom is a risk. Additionally there is a wonderfully macabre scene involving Willem Dafoe's knife wielding rat that feels delightfully out of place, but may upset those raised on a diet of pristine CGI .
Crafted with a love and invention that's on screen for all to see, this is a fascinating oddity from a director that specialises in such movies. Fantastic? No. Flawed? Yes. Fun? Undoubtedly