There are few live-action filmmakers as destined to embrace stop motion as Wes Anderson. The technique might be the ultimate fulfillment of Anderson’s art, which is charged by an obsession with bric-à-brac. The director’s a poet of the inanimate clutter of our lives—of the books and carpets and ties and instruments and songs and films and color patterns that define us. He parodies our preoccupation with these objects as our attempt to exert control over the uncontrollable emotional dimensions of life, but also embraces these objects for their totemic comfort. Parody and true love are the two most prominent components of that ineffable Anderson tone, which could be called ecstatic melancholy. And what’s stop-motion filmmaking but the ultimate poem of the accumulated life force within bric-à-brac?
Large-scale American children’s films are presently in such dire straits that a few clarifiers might be in order. Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t a “children’s film” with the quotes to signify that it’s a money project for slumming major talents. It’s a full-blooded Wes Anderson film like any other, and one of his very best. It treats children like the younger complicated humans they presumably are, rather than as the mindless receptacles for consumer conditioning that most animated films assume them to be. Fantastic Mr. Fox contains Anderson’s customary impeccable framing as well as his heartbreaking acknowledgement of the private dreams that must die for the sake of that mini-democracy known as family, as a democracy can’t certainly thrive from the dictatorial whims of a homemaker still intent on achieving a conventional form of heroism he’s already achieved unconventionally anyway.
Anderson embraces stop-motion filmmaking’s power to convey the minute textures of the conflicting emotions that surge through Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his family and friends. There’s the characters’ fur, which bears the assuring, tangible finger indentions of the puppeteers, and which often testifies to various hurt feelings, most especially of Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Fox’s often disregarded son. There are the beautiful paintings that create the poignantly intimate vistas of the countryside setting, and there’s the impeccable detail of the Fox home (modeled on Roald Dahl’s country estate, which the author used as the basis for the original story’s setting). There’s the raptly specific realization of dozens of gadgets: vehicles, cider presses, donut-stuffing contraptions, as well as a field for an amusingly convoluted wildlife sport that Anderson admits, in this disc’s audio commentary, to not fully understanding himself, though he insists that one of the chief designers knew exactly what’s what.
The filmmaker also adds a tough ironic fillip that’s not in the Dahl novel, but that would have probably made the author quite proud. Fox and his family eventually outwit the farmers with whom they’ve declared war, as they’ve burrowed deep under the chief villain’s sprawling supermarket, undetectable and free to gobble up all the processed goods they can get their paws on. Tonally, this is treated as a celebratory ending, but what has happened exactly? A rogue hero has ended a quest for independence necessarily hidden near a monument to expansive 21st-century-style commerce, destined to feast on products that can’t hold a candle to the natural foods he’s used to.
Anderson has partially flipped the story into a parable of contemporary selling out or of a fledging small market being stamped out by a hopelessly better-equipped major corporation. Fox and his family survive, but because they’ve fashioned a near-prison for themselves that almost entirely excludes the myriad beauties of the ecosystem that’s so lovingly rendered in the early passages of the film. Fox’s attempt to escape what he sees as a stifling existence is ultimately met by the arrival of a far more oppressive reality. This is the sort of disappointment an Anderson character frequently has to weather in the grand tradition of actual humans. And this disappointment is best tolerated by the loving acknowledgement of a painting, or by the obtainment of a newspaper column, or by the nearly secret solace to be taken in a family that will hopefully forgive you anything, despite your propensity for occasionally testing that principle.
The image represents a beautifully perfect merging of stop-motion and digital technologies. Almost too perfect: This reviewer’s memory is dim, but he swears the theatrical presentation of the film was characterized by a grainier texture. This image is absolutely pristine, perhaps a little disappointingly so, but that flawlessness also allows for the occasional ironic emphasis on the stress of sustaining the illusion of a puppet’s movement. Finger indentions, for example, are easier to detect, and so the homespun texture of the film is both compromised and reaffirmed by this brand spanking new transfer. In other words, this reviewer’s reservations are probably reactionary in nature. The English DTS-HD 5.1 mix is unambiguously wonderful: immersive and exceptionally nuanced, with notable attention paid toward the specificity of the soundtrack’s dense field of cultural references.
This is a family package that can be proudly shown to cinephiles and offspring alike. The best one-stop shop is probably director Wes Anderson’s audio commentary, as he’s obviously particularly well-qualified to discuss the challenges of making an animated film that’s blocked like a "Wes Anderson film," with its characteristic variety of ambitious tracking shots and minutely detailed panoramas. Complementing the commentary is the full-length animatic, which is the motion storyboard mockup that guided the film’s production. The other supplements provide deft context regarding the merging of Anderson’s sensibilities with author Roald Dahl’s, and there’s a particularly charming vignette in which the author shows us the tree that inspired Fox’s adventures. Equally welcome is the feature that has Dahl reading the entire original Fantastic Mr. Fox aloud. Everything else ranges from the informative to the diverting, particularly an acceptance speech that parodies the frequent critical ghettoization of animated films. Rounding out the package is a booklet featuring an essay by writer Erica Wagner, an article by Anderson, and the comic book White Cape, which was created for the film by Christian De Vita.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Wes Anderson’s funniest, wisest, and most beautiful explorations of lost dreams, and Criterion affords it the respect it fully deserves.