Fantastic Mr. Fox opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle
Fantastic Mr. Fox director Wes Anderson has always given his protagonists qualities he himself possesses as a director. From Max's love for restaging classic movie scenes in Rushmore to Francis' obsessive need to control everything in The Darjeeling Limited, the subject of Anderson's movies has always been, in part, Wes Anderson.
But in adapting a Roald Dahl story with co-writer Noah Baumbach (writer-director of the underrated Margot at the Wedding), Anderson has found his ideal surrogate: the crafty, inventive, fussy perfectionist Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), whose primary goal in life, like Anderson, is to construct and execute nifty schemes and become very well-liked in the process.
Anderson's movies can be seen as commentaries on the act of film directing itself. In The Life Aquatic, most of his characters were actual filmmakers, and this was clearly what interested Anderson the most about them. (His more deliberate attempts at theme, like his hang-ups on family relationships that feature overgrown boys—usually Owen Wilson—trying to impress father figures don't play as tunefully.) Fantastic Mr. Fox pushes this pet theme giddily further. While it carries a well-organized package of thoughts about fatherhood, adolescence, responsibility and free will, primarily this film just wants to be looked at. In this way, it's a masterpiece of film about film.
Anderson and Baumbach use narrative only as much as they must: Despite a promise Mr. Fox made to Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) some fox-years ago, that he would earn his living honestly, he has decided to graduate from small-time chicken thieving to becoming a mastermind of grand-scale larceny. Recruiting his sheepish pal Kylie (an opossum voiced by Wally Wolodarsky), Fox concocts schemes that will help him take the three neighboring corporate (and human) farmers for all they're worth. Anderson and Baumbach steep the structure of their story in a harmless irony, using on-screen text to poke fun at the meticulous way they break down Fox's three meticulously broken-down schemes.
The self-aware, kid-fitted references to action-movie tropes—bandit hats, poison dog bait, "this time it's personal"—work incredibly well because the characters themselves, especially Fox and his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), are self-conscious about defining their roles: Fox explains his reckless behavior as being built into his character and describes his habit of whistling and clicking his teeth as his trademark. Ash, an undersize adolescent, wants to be an athlete, but he is slowly realizing how unrealistic his goal is and must find a new character to inhabit.
As Fox and Ash indulge in the fantasy that they are themselves in a heist movie, Anderson celebrates the opportunity to build a self-conscious action film into his children's tale. And boy, does he have fun with it. Countless times, the camera whizzes laterally through detailed set pieces packed with visual jokes and kinetic energy that are a thrill to take in. The simple act of synchronizing watches turns into a gleeful series of shots of wristwatches, none dating later than the mid-1980s, all of which would make super-cool accessories today. It's a familiar Anderson approach: outdated props that look neat precisely because they're obsolete but also because of Anderson's great sense of style and design—his personal post-dandy outfits being no exception. This element of his films might be the most divisive aspect of his style: endlessly hip to his admirers, meaninglessly idiosyncratic to his detractors.
But it's hard to naysay the way his aesthetic works in Mr. Fox. Where his retrofitted costuming and set decorations have often made his live action features seem self-consciously quaint, in Fantastic Mr. Fox they help the film feel more like a timeless fable. While in a live-action film like The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie's permanent Björn Borg outfit looks more desperate than dapper, it's hard to apply the same standard to the furry inhabitants of this feature. Who's to say what the realistic fashion sense is for a yoga-practicing, soft-spoken fox teen, or what manner of suit a badger attorney would fancy? The arbiter, decidedly, is Wes Anderson. Here he is finally in a world entirely of his own making, a place he's gotten close to in the past, but never convincingly enough. It was all too human before.
Just because this movie about moviemaking takes place in a miniature fantasyland doesn't mean it has no attachments to the real world. Fox is great to look at, but it is also emotionally resonant, thanks in no small part to the visuals. So convincing is every aesthetic choice—and there are thousands of deliberately clear decisions, such that they become statements—that I found myself having a straight-faced conversation afterward about whether Mr. Fox could really afford the lifestyle he has on the salary he earns writing for the local paper. What was so enjoyable about the conundrum was that there was enough evidence in the film to support a real conversation about that detail of the characters' lives. Anderson has always had a frustrating, anal-retentive predilection for precision that held back his other features. But it is impossible to begrudge Anderson his desire for perfection with Fantastic Mr. Fox because it has resulted in a perfect movie.