You could be forgiven for believing that we live in a golden age of animated film. Only two weeks after the release of Disney’s Up, Twentieth Century Fox has brought us Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson’s extraordinary adaptation of the classic children’s story by Roald Dahl.
Visually and technologically the two films could hardly be more different. Where Up achieves its gorgeously shaded effects using the latest computer wizardry, Fantastic Mr Fox is a hand-made labour of love using “stop- motion” techniques and beautifully crafted puppets.
For some reason Britain has long been the home of some of the best- known stop-motion talent, including the clay animator Nick Park who made the Wallace and Gromit films. Fantastic Mr Fox features the labour-intensive but remarkably expressive creations of Ian McKinnon and Peter Saunders.
It is director Anderson’s first animated film — he is known for quirky adult comedies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums — and he has retained most of the elements of Dahl’s original story, while adding some new characters and the kind of family conflict that forms the core of all his live-action films. There are times when the story is almost overwhelmed by the latter, though there is something charming about the way the Foxes so resemble the dysfunctional, well-educated Brooklyn families in previous films by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach.
George Clooney voices Mr Fox as a middle-aged journalist who has bought an expensive tree house for his wife (Meryl Streep) and grumpy son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and who misses his old life of stealing chickens. Like so many father-figures in Anderson’s films he is charming but deeply flawed. When he decides to do one last big job, stealing from all three of the local human farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, with the help of opossum pal Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) and his athletic nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), he sets off a chain of events that threatens not just the safety of him and his family, but that of the entire animal community.
The three farmers are led by Mr Bean, who is given an East End gangster’s voice by Michael Gambon, and a small army of henchmen toting an impressive arsenal of firearms.
Much has been made of the use of English actors to play the evil farmers, but you barely notice the shift in accents. If the American voices of the animal characters seem a bit strange it is because so much effort has been made to make the rural background look so convincingly English. This is all the more impressive an achievement given the way that Anderson has clearly moved the action to today’s era of mobile phones but somehow retained the feel of Dahl’s original book, published 39 years ago. There is also something wonderful about the way the whole world of the film looks autumnal — it is all yellow, orange, red, brown and gold, with no green at all in the palette.
Some of the language is very American to the extent that several jokes may go over the heads of younger British viewers. For example, UK audiences may wonder what it means when Ash is assigned to “KP”, which is summer camp slang — originally US Army slang — for “kitchen patrol”, ie washing-up duty. Then there are some funny, well-constructed conversations in which the characters use the American-English word “cuss” as a substitute for the f-word, as in “are you cussin with me? Don’t cussin’ point at me!”
Clooney is perfectly cast as Mr Fox, though the stand-out performance, and perhaps the stand-out character of the film, is the villainous, Southern-accented Rat as voiced by Willem Dafoe.
However, Meryl Streep’s Mrs Fox comes a close second. It is a remarkable thing when filmmakers can make an animal puppet somehow sexy, but the combination of design, movement and Meryl Streep’s voice (the richness of which is much more apparent when you cannot see the actress) makes Mrs Fox almost disturbingly desirable.
Fantastic Mr Fox is not quite as satisfying a story as Up. Its adult elements, though even more prominent than those in the Disney/Pixar film, are more whimsical and less heartfelt. Like Anderson’s other wry works, it is studded with pop-culture and film-buff references and can feel like a masterful but self-conscious exercise in hipster style.
There is melancholy here, but it does not always feel earned or anchored in experience. That said, there are moments, such as when you see Mr Fox eat his toast with the savage gluttony of a real wild fox, that are simply brilliant. My personal favourite scene featured a hilariously complicated game called Whackbat, a clever spoof on cricket as seen by an American, explained to young Ash by Coach Skip (played by Anderson’s frequent collaborator and fellow Texan, Owen Wilson).
Though at one point Brian Cox as the TV journalist covering the farmers’ siege of the Fox’s hill does sounds oddly like the reporters covering Gaza, there is no trace in the film of Dahl’s unapologetic antisemitism.