So old-fashioned as to look like something brand new, the stop-motion-animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is as recognizably a Wes Anderson film as any of his previous features. Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s favorite about a fox clan and friends eluding human predators has been transformed into a tale of odd family dynamics stemming from the behavior of an eccentric patriarch. The film’s style, paradoxically both precious and rough-hewn, positions this as the season’s defiantly anti-CGI toon, and its retro charms will likely appeal more strongly to grown-ups than to moppets; it’s a picture for people who would rather drive a 1953 Jaguar XK 120 than a new one. B.O. for this Fox release will no doubt be closer to that of “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” than of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
The second talking-fox picture of the year, after Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” this one features not genital mutilation, but a leading character who gets his tail shot off. It also boasts some of the most gorgeous autumnal color schemes devised by someone other than Mother Nature herself, animal puppets festooned with actual fur, and a sensibility more indie-rarefied than mainstream.
It’s a curious coincidence that Anderson and Spike Jonze, two of the young auteurs who came to prominence around the late ’90s, have kid-lit adaptations featuring puppets (albeit of vastly differing sizes) coming out simultaneously, and that both “Mr. Fox” and “Where the Wild Things Are” strive for such hand-crafted, individualized looks. The films may have their problems, but the least one can say is that neither very closely resembles anything that’s come before.
“Mr. Fox” is characterized by chapter headings that slide across the screen; trademark Anderson compositions that resemble storyboards and abundant lateral camera moves; a soundtrack that easily accommodates everything from “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” and the theme from “Day for Night” to the Beach Boys’ version of “Ol’ Man River”; and a hirsute male lead who would look right at home on the cover of GQ.
Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) wears a double-breasted, pumpkin-colored corduroy suit, a custard-hued sweater and two stylish wheat stalks peeking out of his breast pocket. His slim, trim wife (Meryl Streep) complements him perfectly, and when he tells her, “You’re still as fine-looking as a creme brulee,” Anderson’s sophisticated following will nod with pleasure while their kids think, “What the heck?”
As in Dahl’s 81-page yarn — whose pencil-sketch illustrations by Quentin Blake (in some editions) could not be more different from Anderson’s fastidious visuals — Mr. Fox’s pelt is desperately desired by three nasty farmers whose produce he regularly poaches. Boggis and Bunce and Bean, “one fat, one short, one lean,” launch all-out war on their adversary, digging down into his lair before recruiting snipers to shoot on sight.
The geological precision with which Fox and his friends’great escape is presented reps one of the film’s visual highlights, as they furiously dig through layer after layer of earth to stay ahead of their enemies’ onslaught. Along the way, Fox burrows up into the three men’s properties, from which he pilfers enough to prepare a giant feast, while the war continues to the point of becoming a televised siege.
But the overarching drama doesn’t interest Anderson and fellow screenwriter Noah Baumbach nearly as much as the family issues. In contrast to the book, in which the Foxes have four largely undifferentiated kids, here they have but one son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who isn’t sure he can meet his father’s expectations. Joining them in flight are unassertive cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), opossum Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and lawyer Badger (Bill Murray). Plainly set in England, the film maintains a linguistic divide between British-accented humans and American-accented animals.
The thematic thread here pertains to the maintenance of one’s true personality and character strengths. When they have a child, Mrs. Fox gets her husband to promise to cease being a wild thing (apologies to Jonze) and become respectable. When he subsequently reverts to his old, buccaneering ways, Mr. Fox must do so surreptitiously, and when he’s caught in a lie, his wife is deeply distraught that he hasn’t really changed.
But it’s his true character that wins the day, and it’s a trait Anderson clearly advocates through his own choices. Employing a deliberately unpolished, herky-jerky style that traces back specifically to Ladislas Starevich’s 1941 “The Tale of the Fox” but also variously recalls the imperfect but imperishable stop-motion techniques in the silent “The Lost World,” the original “King Kong,” the work of Ray Harryhausen, Norman McLaren’s “A Chairy Tale” and many others, the film achieves a feel that is at once coarse-grained and elegant, antiquated and the height of fashion.
That said, individual scenes often go off in irritatingly self-indulgent directions, especially when they brush upon lifestyle issues, meditation timeouts and too-cute observations.
Much is being made of reports that Anderson was not physically present during the film’s actual making in London, that he directed by remote links from Paris. It’s also a matter of record that Henry Selick, who created stop-motion sequences for Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” was originally slated to co-direct “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Whatever the case, Anderson’s indelible imprint is on every frame here, more for better than for worse.
All craft aspects are aces.