On DVD: Fantastic Mr. Fox

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There really is something a bit fantastic about Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation debut “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The quirky spirit of the Roald Dahl book could only be captured by a filmmaker with a deep and unforgiving wit. Anderson’s dry and subtle sense of humor might not translate into big dollars (at least by comparison to giants such as DreamWorks and Pixar), but his affinity for diverse and amusing characters fits the world of animation better than anyone might expect.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) is a cocky yet certainly charming woodland creature who relocates his family to an area where three nasty and powerful farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean live nearby. A former chicken thief, Mr. Fox sees a chance to recapture some of his former glory, even if it means going behind the back of his loyal wife (Meryl Streep). When the farmers catch onto him, they go after his home and family.

Snagging your attention from the get-go is the unique quality of the stop-motion figures. Anderson explores the medium’s full potential, blending elements of the modern day detail- oriented school of thought with cartoon elements and also playing with the 2-D diorama aspect which is unlike anything done before. Stop-motion masters such as Nick Park are all focuses on making the world seem as real as possible whereas Anderson isn’t afraid to make his characters look and feel like moving figurines. He embraces that quality in a way most filmmakers would likely be afraid to do.

The details on the close-ups of Mr. Fox and friends are stunning. I can’t recall any stop- motion characters that looked so good inches away from the camera. The fur and the way the eyes roll around in the sockets are two unparalleled qualities.

Anderson’s dry humor lends itself excellently to the family film, which fans of his work probably did not expect, but probably should have. His films have always been focused on family. Tone down the family members to PG levels and the extent to which they are dysfunction and you have an excellent director for such a film. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” would not top any kid’s list of family/kid movies, but there’s no issues of child-appropriateness. Some physical humor accompanied with the dead-pan wit of of Anderson and his usual suspects (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, etc) achieve the child vs. parent-geared balance most animated films strive for.

Then again, adults will appreciate “Mr. Fox” a whole lot more. Animation has proved itself a viable means of adult entertainment in 2009 with “Mr. Fox” capping it all off. The film will make you laugh in ways you never thought an animated film with talking animals ever could because of how ingeniously understated all the gags are.

But “Mr. Fox” is equal parts art, taking stop-motion to new places. The opening sequences of Mr. and Mrs. running through a farm and stealing chickens serves as an ideal taste of what’s to come. The camera pulls back and you see the set as if you were one of the filmmakers looking at these miniature models and the two are running around and jumping to some classic-as-always soundtrack choices from Anderson. It is a unique and spirited adventure that despite a somewhat disinteresting plot breaks ground in enough special ways to warrant some serious acclaim.

4/5 Stars

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Roald Dahl (book)
Starring: (voices) George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman