After you've seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox, burrow down a bit deeper and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion:
The experience of Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight), Wes Anderson's stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl book for young readers, is like being magically shrunk down to 1:12 scale and set loose for 90 minutes in an exquisite, handcrafted, dizzyingly well-stocked dollhouse. If, like me, you're a lifelong aficionado of miniatures—someone who still presses their nose to toy-store windows filled with cunningly crafted furniture and tiny kitchen supplies—this movie will seduce you on tactile terms alone. The animal characters' real, shiny fur, gently moving in the wind! The infinitely detailed sets and props: acorn-patterned wallpaper, cutlery made from deer hooves, bespoke corduroy jackets with tiny stalks of wheat in place of pocket squares! You don't want to watch this movie, you want to climb inside it and play.
The best part of Fantastic Mr. Fox is that, as an animated children's fable about chicken-thieving woodland creatures, it frees you to enjoy these minutiae without feeling distracted from the real human story: There is no human story. Though the stakes of the plot are life-and-death—the clever vulpine hero must find a way to save his friends and family from three gun-wielding poultry farmers—the fact that the protagonists are clearly dolls (if anything, Anderson is at pains to emphasize their artificiality) allows the audience to luxuriate in the characters' colors, textures, and movements without the guilty sense that we're turning them into aesthetic objects. That's exactly what they're meant to be.
Anderson, always an obsessive archivist of his own hyper-refined tastes, seems more at home in this dollhouse universe than in the flesh-and-blood world of his last few movies. (Though I'm not an Anderson-hater by any means, I've found his post-Rushmore films increasingly airless and meandering.) All the Anderson tics that threaten to get in the way of his storytelling in live-action films serve as assets here. There's the monomaniacal attention to detail, the statically framed shots with only one plane of depth, and the signature Wes Anderson acting style: deadpan and restrained, but with a curious emotional directness.
Unlike Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Dahl's story isn't an enigmatic, self-sufficient koan. Rather, it's an Ocean's Eleven-style heist caper with poultry and hard cider in place of bank vaults. Mr. Fox is a trickster, confident to the point of vanity about his competence and charm, but generous and loyal, too. A more George Clooney-esque role is difficult to imagine—if Clooney hadn't accepted the part, Anderson would have been up a creek, unless the magic of his tech team could have extended to reanimating Frank Sinatra. But Clooney did accept, and his warm, masculine, gently self-mocking presence anchors the movie. Mr. Fox's wife (here named Felicity in honor of Dahl's widow) is voiced by an uncharacteristically tamped-down Meryl Streep, while their 12-year-old son, Ash, speaks in the familiarly plaintive tones of Anderson's longtime alter ego Jason Schwartzman. (Schwartzman, as always, is funny, but the subplot of Ash's Oedipal rivalry with his dashing father makes for the movie's few draggy moments.)
In addition to condensing the four Fox children of the novel into a single character, Anderson and his co-screenwriter, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), have added a host of other woodland-creature characters, including Fox's badger attorney (Bill Murray); his opossum handyman and sidekick, Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky); and his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, Wes' younger brother). When the animals' arch-enemies, three farmers named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, devise ever more brutal tactics to protect their vast stores of food from the tunneling pests, Fox is forced to move from small-scale thievery to his most complex operation yet.
By all accounts, the making of Fantastic Mr. Fox was a weird concatenation of preindustrial craftsmanship and high-tech communications. Even though Anderson eschewed the use of computer-generated imagery and insisted on details like real animal fur (from "safe sources," according to the film's puppet master, Andy Gent) and hand-embroidered costumes, he directed the movie remotely from his Paris apartment, receiving dailies from London via e-mail and sending back notes overnight. (According to this piece in the Los Angeles Times, the tech team was not universally overjoyed about this long-distance relationship with their director.) The amount of individual decisions this process must have involved—the movie is made up of more than 600,000 still frames, using 500-plus puppets built to different scales and arranged on 150 sets with some 4,000 props—is enough to boggle the mind of the most obsessive micromanager. The fact that the resulting movie feels as loose, free, and joyous as it does is astonishing.
On two different occasions during the film, Mr. Fox and his burrowing buddies break into what feels like spontaneous dance. In reality, of course, these scenes were achieved by dozens of puppeteers and set dressers bending the figures into different postures, rigging them to stand and then stepping out of the frame so they could be photographed, then stepping back in and doing it again. Those dance sequences celebrate the joy of a fox cutting loose on a chicken farm, but they're every bit as much about the joy of stop-motion filmmaking, the magic by which toys and a camera come together to create a moving, dancing world.
Slate V: The critics on 2012, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Pirate Radio