Fantastic Mr. Fox

October 31, 2009

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By this point, you’re either with Wes Anderson or you’re against him.  Some will say he peaked with Rushmore, and everything after has been a succession of diminishing returns.  Others, myself included, whilst recognizing that Rushmore just might be his masterpiece, have found a lot to love in his recent work.  Royal Tenenbaums is pretty wonderful, and I can’t really understand whatever criticisms people might throw at it.  Life Aquatic is deeply unfocused, and yet it’s entertaining and interesting and the finale never fails to bring a tear to my eye.  I even admire Darjeeling Limited, which benefited a great deal from a second and third viewing.  If you can handle his somewhat precious aesthetic, and accept that this is his style and he probably won’t change it, there’s a lot of good to be found in his work.  On the other hand, if you find yourself unable to take his style, Anderson has absolutely no interest in helping you out.  With that understanding, let us press on with his newest feature, the stop-motion animated Roald Dahl adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I’m unfamiliar with the source material, so how close the film follows it is beyond me, though I suspect Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach hijacked the original story for their own purposes.  Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife (Meryl Streep) were once thieves, sneaking into farmer’s squab pens and making off with the food.  She reveals she is pregnant, he becomes a journalist, and they have a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzmann).  Fox tires of living underground, so he buys a prime piece of tree real estate and, before long, sets about his old ways by raiding the nearby farming conglomerates, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.  This lands him into some trouble as the vicious farmers work to rid themselves of their Fox problem, landing the entire animal community underground and on the run.  Also involved is a nephew of Fox’s, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), how is athletic and intelligent in ways Ash can only hope to be.  The themes explored are pretty basic (banal?).  Fox must accept his life as it is with his family and give up his old ways, Ash wants to prove himself to his father, and everyone must embrace their wild animal instincts.  The first two are fine and dealt with in a pretty standard manner, and represent perhaps the only real concessions (condescension) to the child market a stop-motion feature has.  The third theme, however, is more of a mess.  In a way, it’s the most interesting idea, but it’s handled rather sloppily, and when the film shuts down for a few minutes in the midst of the climactic getaway, Fox has an interlude with a wolf that feels shoehorned in and completely out of place.

Those underwhelming aspects/failures aside, there’s the visual aspect to be addressed.  He’s made a stop-motion feature without really knowing how to make one, but with a strong desire to make one in an old-fashioned style.  Detractors will point out that this is just a twee/precious affectation that is indicative of all of Anderson’s faults, and they’d be partly right.  Using antiquated techniques to make smoke and water effects, he’s intentionally drawing attention to the process of the filmmaking, probably in an attempt to create a retro vibe that harks back to the films of his youth.  It is, admittedly, annoying at times, especially in the close-ups during emotional scenes where the figures (puppets?  What’s the correct word here?) fail to provide an adequate range of expression.  Furthermore, some of the action is stilted and awkward, again drawing conspicuous attention to the form.  There are reasons in some films to draw attention to the form itself, but here they seem only to be to point out the old-school style he’s gone for, and isn’t that cute?  Well it isn’t.  Whatever his reasons, it tends to draw the viewer out of the film, and that’s not a good thing in this case.  On the flipside, some of that retro-technique works fairly well, especially in the dancing sequences of what I’ll call the revenge montage.  The awkward nature of the animation gives a jubilant, goofy vibe to the scenes that I appreciated.  Also, the human figures (especially Boggis, Bunce, and Bean) are gorgeous in their gnarled grotesqueness, and they’re enhanced in every scene by the splendid cinematography.  That cinematography is also the best visual component to the film.  Tristan Oliver, who previously showed his immeasurable skill on Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, bathes everything in a warm, autumnal palette.  The scene in the cider cellar is absolutely astonishing in the way it utilizes the orange liquids and the glass to filter the lighting, made all the more prominent when juxtaposed with the moment the harsh fluorescent light is turned on.  Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are sometimes shrouded in darkness and shadows, with the burning end of a cigarette and the gleam of a pistol highlighting their skewed silhouettes.  For all the roughness of the animation, there’s real beauty to counterbalance it.

The other visual component is all Anderson, and that comes through the meticulous shot composition of every frame.  If there’s something about this project that really excited him, it was probably the chance to set up every shot of a film in the kind of framing he can’t get away with all the time in live action (though he most certainly does try).  Characters are often looking directly at the camera, placed just so that it looks like a posed picture, highlighting the staged aspect of a film.  There is an awful lot of Anderson’s idiosyncratic aesthetic style here, including the extreme-close-up inserts of props, the use of cutaway sets, and titles partitioning each chapter of the story.  The writing sticks to his (and Baumbach’s) personal taste as well, with a lot of the humour coming from the juxtaposition of the fantastical situations and settings and modern, mundane concerns (for instance, there are gags about mortgages and credit ratings).  It should be noted that this film is actually very funny, and there were moments where I really couldn’t stop laughing (the convoluted rules for Whack-Bat probably got me some awkward stares from everyone else in the theater).  In fact, there isn’t much in the way of obvious humour for the kids, which leads to the nagging question:  just who is this film for, anyway?

There’s very little pandering to the young here.  The rat wields a switchblade (a much bigger deal in Britain than in the US, but still), swearing is replaced by ‘cuss’ and variations thereof that never truly hide what is actually being said, the animals kill other animals for food (begging the question of which animals are sentient in this universe and which aren’t), and of course the aforementioned adult humour.  There is a lot here that only the adults will truly understand, but it’s still a stop-motion animation film, traditionally a kids/family medium, and the themes are simple enough for the youngsters to understand but not complex enough for adults to appreciate on an interesting level.  It just doesn’t balance either side well enough to be considered a truly ‘family film’.  So just who is the target audience?  For me, the answer seems simple.  Wes Anderson has made a film for Wes Anderson.  If you like it, you like it.  If you don’t, then too bad.

-M

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One Response to “Fantastic Mr. Fox”

  1. the20 Says:

    I think the look of the film is absolutely perfect throughout and the puppets have more life in them than a those from any Pixar film. In some of the close-ups you can see all the individual hairs moving accordingly – and that is painstakingly hard to do with puppets and stop-motion animation. The characters are vibrant, energetic and a nice refreshing change form all the CGI kids films we have seen recently.
    I have to disagree with you about the scene with the wolf. It is a beautifully touching moment and I think the best scene in the film. I guess you could say it harks back to the question of whether you love Wes Anderson or not but in the case of Fantastic Mr Fox he makes a lot of his standard themes very accessible and the wolf scene is a fine example of this.
    You are spot on about the perceived audience though. Some jokes are just not accessible to kids and some are. It’s an odd mix of humour spanning from silly dances and jokes about titanium cards. I agree with you, Wes Anderson has turned this classic tale into another Wes Anderson film but I for one am not complaining!


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