As with Spike Jonze and Where the Wild Things Are, Wes Anderson channels his idiosyncratic adult sensibilities through youthful genre trappings with the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yet even in light of this similarity, Anderson’s effort is the slightly more childlike of the two, despite the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, exactly what one might imagine a stop-motion Anderson film to be: multitudes of quirky characters, immaculately arranged compositions and camera pans, soundtrack outbursts of classic rock, and a blend of tender humanism and melancholic existentialism.
With his expanded-upon adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1970 book, Anderson uses technology previously employed in The Life Aquatic to make an animalistic variation on The Royal Tenenbaums, with which this story shares a sly, scheming paterfamilias in Mr. Fox (George Clooney), an exasperated wife in Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), a mopey oddball son prone to fits of spitting anger in Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and a variety of droll supporting players. Per Anderson convention, all of these figures wrestle with the question of their inherent nature (here: civilized or bestial?), the looming threat of mortality, and the vitality of family during their adventure, which is sparked by Mr. Fox’s inability to embrace his cozy but mundane domestic existence and newspaper-columnist career, and ensuing decision to break his years-earlier promise to Mrs. Fox by again poaching chickens.
Regardless of his grownup themes, Anderson is clearly in a more playful, rambunctious mode than in his prior The Darjeeling Limited, a spirit exemplified by his bright, electric animation. Fantastic Mr. Fox beautifully melds stop-motion’s slightly unreal aesthetics (strange movements, stilted expressions, rough tangibility) with his own festishistically detailed style, a marriage that’s buoyed by a host of small flourishes—such as the eyes of Mr. Fox’s possum pal Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) going swirly-lined crazy, or an inspired campfire musical aside—that prove comically self-conscious. Anderson, however, mostly calls attention to his visual approach simply by using it for trademark symmetrical compositions, interior environments decorated with all manner of knick-knacks, and humorous cutaways to character-defining snapshots, most expertly during Mr. Fox’s description of his chosen trio of arch enemies, evil farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon), a cabal whose residences loom directly outside Mr. Fox’s newly purchased Elm tree home. Mr. Fox’s war with these three forms the film’s narrative backbone. As always, though, Anderson’s swift pacing and deft ability to outline personalities and emotions in quick, sharp strokes allows him time for other concerns, most amusingly Ash’s frustration at being labeled “different” (his preferred outfit: a girly sweater and cape), his jealousy of celebrated athlete cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), and his desire for fatherly acceptance.
If Fantastic Mr. Fox is consistently jovial, it can also at times feel trivial. While Mr. Fox’s third-act impromptu funeral for a fallen enemy imbues the material with a philosophical bent, and solemn pathos periodically creeps into the story’s nooks and crannies, Anderson subsumes such heady topics in favor of lighthearted regurgitation. With his latest, the director doesn’t take a step in any direction so much as simply re-mine his oeuvre, a situation that isn’t quite disappointing but does impart a lingering impression of unadventurous superficiality.
Given its canny beauty and quick wit, Fantastic Mr. Fox seems primed to also burrow into issues of self, uniqueness, and community as dexterously as Mr. Fox and his clan dig holes, yet Anderson prizes the funny over the profound to an extent that keeps the proceedings a tad too light and jovial to register as anything more than a lightweight aside to his more acute, earnest work. Such a critique, however, should only be taken in relative terms, since on the whole, Anderson’s first foray into animation amuses at a consistent enough clip, and with an impressively deft balance between mature and immature humor, to successfully charm, if not quite make ones eyes go swirly-lined delirious with joy.