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Great script, visuals make Mr. Fox fantastic

by Glen Baity

Will kids go for a talking animal movie with no computer animation?

I honestly don’t know, but my gut tells me they may not. Compared to the slick, 3-D quipfests that pass for kids’ entertainment these days, Fantastic Mr. Fox is downright old-fashioned. If Madagascar 2 is a Nintendo Wii, Wes Anderson’s film is one of those cornhusk dolls they sell in museum gift shops. It’s also — and this is where the cornhusk comparison breaks down — a lot of fun for the adults in the audience.

Having never read The Fantastic Mr. Fox as a kid, I can’t give an honest opinion of the film’s faithfulness to the Roald Dahl novel on which it is based. I do know that it feels nothing like Willy Wonka, but it is every inch a Wes Anderson project. All the key elements are there: British invasionera soundtrack, pensive and funny characters, halting line delivery, whip-smart writing and sets built like dollhouses (though this time they host actual dolls). Kids may or may not like it, but Anderson fans will have a great time. Gone is the excessive navel-gazing of The Darjeeling Limited. In its place is a breezy, charming little fable filled with colorful characters, gorgeous visuals and great writing.

The One Last Heist structure is an old one, but not unwelcome here: Mr. Fox (George Clooney) loves raiding chicken coops, but Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) doesn’t like the very real element of danger in the work. Pregnant with their first child, she asks him to look for work that doesn’t involve getting shot at by angry farmers.

A dozen fox years later, the couple and young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) have moved up in the world, but the siren call of three nearby farms is too much for Fox to resist. He starts planning furtive heists with his friend and reluctant partner in crime Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky). The targets: Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, whose owners are as mean as they are paranoid. Fox and Kylie dodge electric fences, rabid beagles and ninja rats for the chance to feast on chicken and alcoholic cider.

The film is shot in stop motion, using intricately crafted miniatures. Kudos to the production design team, which creates a magical world bathed in warm autumn light. It’s unlike anything else you’re likely to see in a modern movie theater — even its closest living cousin, the dazzling Coraline, seems to occupy a different universe despite its use of the same animation technique. Credit Anderson, who brings a sort of rumpled three-piece suit aesthetic to everything he does. Like a Max

Fischer production, Fox is brilliant and technically accomplished, but it doesn’t try to hide its rough edges, which only makes it more appealing.

The visuals are only half the fun. Thanks to a hilarious script by Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), and a stellar voice cast highlighted by Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Willem Dafoe, the laughs are consistent. By using veterans of his past productions, Anderson preserves the rhythm of his live-action films. So if you laughed out loud at the heist planning scene in Bottle Rocket, or Steve Zissou’s ludicrous documentaries in The Life Aquatic, or the alpha-male posturing of Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, you’ll notice familiar cues here. It’s a tad cuddlier, but Mr. Fox raids the same henhouse.

To comment on this story, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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