Friday, November 27, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Fantastic Mr. Fox
2009, Twentieth Century Fox
In Theaters
9 out of 10

Writer and director Wes Anderson has made a name for himself in cinema, producing precious, whimsical and hilarious films that, underneath their thrift store veneers, pack a two-note wallop centering around betrayal and redemption. Almost all of Anderson's film involve a self-serving patriarch or protagonist that, by film's end, learns to be a mench, while everyone else learns a lesson in forgiving. Yet, out of all the dysfunctional twee at the core of each of his films, no other Anderson outting has ever been more absolutely delightful than in this, his latest, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Based (loosely) on the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, we meet the "Fantastic" Mr. Fox (George Clooney) just as he's on the cusp of retiring from a career of poultry thievery, and he discovers that his wife, Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), is pregnant. "12 Fox Years Later", Mr. Fox has settled into a life of staid suburban domesticity as a dedicated husband, father and Op-Ed newspaper columnist. Buying into the suburban ideal, Fox even pines for an "above ground" abode, moving his family from their cozy hole-in-the-ground into a lofty hollowed-out tree, against the advice of his lawyer (Bill Murray).

Of course, Fox's new dwelling gives him the perfect view of the factory farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three of the meanest farmers in all the land. As responsibility gives way to animal instinct, Mr. Fox plots three "last big jobs." Enlisting the help of his friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and Nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), the thieving goes off without a hitch. That is, however, until they cross the meanest, most determined-to-kill farmer of the three, Franklin Bean (Michael Gambon), who is aided by his security rat (Willem Defoe) and his lackey Petey (Jarvis Cocker, of the legendary Britpop band Pulp).

Amidst all the mayhem, hole digging and one-upping of the deranged farmers at every turn, is the the plot thread centering around Ash Fox (Jason Schwartzman) competing for the attention of his Father from his intelligent, conscientious, confident, athletic, and warm-hearted cousin Kristofferson. Ash, you see, is "different". He wears a cape and pajamas (with the legs tucked into his tube socks, natch!) at all times. Compared to his Father and cousin's accomplishments, ash is a runt whose defense mechanism is to resentfully spit on the ground and make snide, hurtful comments. In other words, Ash is a bit of an asshole.

But honestly, where would an Anderson film be without the "daddy issues?" Anderson's last couple of movies, The Dajeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and (especially) The Royal Tenenbaums, were packed to the gills with narratives centering around the aftermath of a self-centered Father and the turbulence left in their wakes. Fantastic Mr. Fox, however, takes this Anderson trope to surprisingly precious heights. When the redemption comes (as it always does in Anderson's films), it's gratifyingly magical and heartwarming.

Now, I am a fan of Anderson's work. His second film, Rushmore, still ranks as one of my personal "Top-10 Movies Of All Time." This director's work can be preening and too-precious at times, but beneath the sentimentality and attention to dusty knick-knack detail, Anderson's films have a heart and soul to them that easily transports you to a more whimsical and warm place. Fantastic Mr. Fox, though, is the zenith of Anderson's ability to dispense his magic thus far; as if all those threads in his cinematic canon where leading to this.

Keep in mind that the performances here are one-half animation (stop-motion animation, to be more exact). More-so than in any of his previous films, Anderson has channeled more pathos and humanity through these "dolls" than any living actor he's placed on screen. Take for instance the scene where Fox and his friends are digging below the farmers farming complexes. Fox stops his digging and motions upward as if to say, "This is the spot." Then he looks up, if only for a second, and digs upward. That's it: he just glances skyward. It's an involuntary gesture, but here, in this stop-motion arena, it's subtle. It's human.

In our CGI movie-making world, it's easy to take the impossible for granted. Sure, it still looks glossy, bright and fake, but computer generated graphics are now tumbling beloved landmarks, making bullets fly around people and allowing transforming robots to bore us to death. Stop motion in today's special effects climate is the work of the dedicated and insane. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, I sat there mesmerized by each and every frame. The hours poured into every motion, every glance, every syllable coming out of every characters mouth: transfixing. Here is a lo-fi, outdated discipline of animation unfolding flawlessly on screen, and I was amazed by every second of it.

I dare say that this may be Wes Anderson's finest film so far. Fantastic Mr. Fox is intelligent, witty, funny and accessible to audiences of all ages. And in a rare coup, Anderson has included "inside" gags young and old can enjoy together, on the same level (what a novel idea!) He has also given his audience a world and characters that populate it, making you want to return to over and over again. Every Anderson trademark is in there: the camaraderie, the redemption, a montage featuring a Rolling Stones song, the vintage tchotkes (albeit, manufactured in miniature instead of mined from thrift stores and grade school surplus auctions), the whimsical score augmenting the hand-picked play-list of mix CD-worthy songs, etc.

This director has a seemingly effortless spirit and flavor marking his films as his, and his alone. Anderson stylistically can be placed on the shelf next to other American auteurs with a penchant for aesthetic branding: Scorsese, Tarantino, Jonze, Burton, Jarmusch, et al. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson has his most substantial work to date (and that is really saying something, giving this directors proven track record and quality cinematic out-put). Fantastic Mr. Fox lives up to it's title, especially that "fantastic" part.

A cussing good film!

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