Bottom Line: The gorgeous stop-motion animation of Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptation does not compensate for compromised story and character development.
Director Wes Anderson’s style is now instantly recognizable: offbeat characters, symmetrical compositions, slow-motion closing shots and soundtracks mixing the best of indie and British classic rock. It has served him well up to this point, but Anderson’s stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox fails to offer a fresh take on the all-too-familiar motifs.
In this delicately-crafted but inconsistent movie, family man Mr. Fox (George Clooney) finds himself resorting to his old ways as a thief, stealing food from the farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (Michael Gamdon, better known as Albus Dumbledore). This means lying to his beloved wife (Meryl Streep) and dragging along the helplessly naïve opossum Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) for the ride. Mr. Fox’s kleptomania ultimately sets off a war between the animals and the farmers in a story full of action and humor.
From a visual standpoint, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Stop-motion animation is a meticulous process in which all shots are captured one-by-one. Setting the characters in his trademark symmetrical compositions, Anderson brings hand-crafted figurines to life. This animation process results in authentic shadows and detail, down to the corduroy material of Mr. Fox’s jacket. This texture gives the film an archaic sense of realism which is so unique considering the dominance of computer-animated films.
There are many glimpses of the warmth which has made Anderson’s films so charming in the past. Throughout the film, Mr. Fox’s son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is overshadowed by his much more talented cousin Kristofferson (the director’s brother Eric Chase Anderson). Out of jealousy, Ash forces his cousin to sleep on the floor, but he quickly feels guilty and cheers up Kristofferson by turning on a toy train set. The two young foxes are able to delight in a simple toy. This scene represents what this movie does well — director Wes Anderson handles the hand-crafted characters with such care and playfulness as if the film itself were a sort of train set for the audience to enjoy.
Unfortunately, the power of these beautiful moments is offset by the flaws of Anderson’s script. The film is choppy, jumping from scene to scene without sufficient character and plot development. The attention to detail is apparent with Fantastic Mr. Fox’s images, but the lack of narrative development leaves the film dry. When Mr. Fox is confronted by his wife for his criminal relapse, there is a close-up of the characters’ faces, and tears can be seen falling from their eyes. Although visually impressive, the scene feels superficial and distant. The whimsical freedom from well-structured narrative makes it difficult for viewers to emotionally invest themselves in the characters.
In the past, Wes Anderson has successfully steered away from the forced and contrived nature of most independent comedies. He finally succumbs to empty quirkiness in many parts of this film. What has kept Anderson from this downfall in the past is the underlying danger in his films. Whether it is the obsessive love of a student for a teacher in Rushmore or a horrifyingly dysfunctional family in The Royal Tenenbaums, he has always balanced the serious and the comedic with grace. By shifting his target audience to children, Anderson seems hesitant to tap into the dangers of a story, leaving only his hollow cuteness. The limitations of the children’s movie are most apparent with this film’s incessant use of the word “cuss” in place of expletives. It is meant to be clever, but it tires and simply does not work. Anderson attempts to subvert the nature of the children’s film to his advantage, but it fails and simply accentuates his self-imposed limitations.
The few noteworthy voice acting performances, like those of Schwartzman and Wolodarsky, work against the sometimes lifeless script to give the characters a sense of warmth. Unfortunately, George Clooney was not the right choice for the titular mastermind. He has the charisma of the protagonist, and it is a fantastic idea on paper. However, Clooney’s voice is far too polished for this production. Anderson goes to great lengths to visually create a vintage atmosphere, yet the overwhelming presence of Clooney’s voice is out of place. In the past, Anderson has worked best with misfit actors known as outcasts or oddballs — Gene Hackman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson. Former world’s sexiest man Clooney lacks the edge necessary for an Anderson film, especially a Dahl adaptation. This sort of casting is expected from larger Hollywood studios but not the independent-spirited Wes Anderson.
This film is a disappointment not simply because of what Anderson does wrong but because of the many things he does well. The meticulously-crafted figures and the stop-motion animation give this film a feeling of authenticity. The characters move through space, which is not the case for most animated films. So much time went into the animation, but film is not a purely visual medium. The writing and music for which Anderson is so often praised is lacking. The script especially fails to measure up to the carefully-crafted compositions, and as a result, the joy of the animation barely sustains itself for the duration of the movie.
The children’s books by Roald Dahl were great not because they were cute but because they were dangerous. Young Matilda rebelled against headmistress Miss Trunchbull, and Willy Wonka used his chocolate factory to dementedly punish children for their excesses. Wes Anderson should not have been afraid to take more risks with this adaptation. Instead this production is too whimsical and neat to feel substantial. There are moments in which Anderson shines, but Fantastic Mr. Fox makes too many thematic and artistic compromises.