“What the cuss?” as its hero might say (and often does). Wes Anderson’s recent live-action movies may have been stinkers, but he’s produced a toon that puts virtually every non-Pixar one of recent years to shame. (I except “Coraline.”) Of course, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” starts with a leg—or paw—up in being based on a book by Roald Dahl. But that alone is hardly a guarantee of success. What makes the film such an unalloyed delight is the combination of quirky, off-the-wall humor, charmingly old-fashioned stop-motion animation and deftly deadpan voice work. The result is unmistakably Andersonian, but it doesn’t curdle on the screen the way “The Darjeeling Limited,” for example, did, and at the same time it’s true to the sensibility of its source.
The central conceit of Dahl’s animal fable is retained. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), reformed from his early thieving ways by his wife (Meryl Streep) when she finds herself pregnant, is a columnist for the local paper who moves his family into a tree house near the farms of the area’s three most notorious farmers—Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugh Guinness). Then he goes recidivist. When he pilfers their properties along with his reluctant sidekick, the opossum Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), they declare war, in the first skirmish of which he loses his tail. But that’s just the prelude to their full-scale assault, a mad pursuit that takes everyone deep underground, threatening not just him and his family but all the other local animals. Of course, in the end the ever-inventive hero outfoxes the humans. (Certainly you saw that one coming.)
The whole chase scenario is amusing—helped by Willem Dafoe’s turn as a nasty security rat who shows up at the most inopportune moments—but what really sets the movie apart is the Fox family dynamic, involving not just his wife, a painter who’s disappointed that her husband’s broken his no-poaching promise to her, but his rebellious son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and his visiting nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). It’s a considerable understatement to say that the two boys don’t get along, especially since the ridiculously even-tempered Kristofferson is physically miles ahead of the athletically challenged Ash. (The absurdly convoluted baseball-like game they play under the tutelage of Coach Skip, a cameo by Anderson pal Owen Wilson, is detailed in a wonderful scene.) This part of the script, which is really Anderson rather than Dahl, takes the movie into “Royal Tenenbaums” territory to delightful effect. And it gives to the last act of the narrative an emotional heft that’s positively human.
Every element of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” has been imagined with enormous care. The animation looks like nothing we’ve seen before, at once stiff and sometimes (as in the mazelike pursuit scenes) deliberately jerky, but also rich and textured. The voice work is impeccable, with Clooney’s deadpan delivery dominating but Wolodarsky and Streep abetting him nicely. The duo of Anderson regular Schwartzman and his brother Eric also works beautifully, with the former’s petulance set off perfectly against the latter’s resigned monotone. And with the likes of Gambon, Dafoe and Bill Murray (as lawyer Badger) in support, one couldn’t wish for more flavorful vocal contributions. Mention must also be made of the hilariously eclectic soundtrack that adds an array of oddly appropriate tunes to Alexandre Desplat’s witty score, including some sung by Jarvis Cocker.
Unlike so many animated features made today, which have a cookie-cutter feel to them, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” has an utterly distinctive voice, akin to (but very different from) that of England’s Aardman studio (of “Wallace and Gromit” fame). As a result it may appeal more to adults than to children. But what’s really remarkable is that the voice isn’t just Dahl’s or Anderson’s, but a mixture of the two that enriches both. The author is reputed to have disliked virtually all the previous adaptations of his work, and one can only wonder what he would have felt about this one. But if not entirely faithful to the content Dahl’s book, it’s remarkably true to its tone and sensibility, and Anderson’s peculiar brand of extravagantly laid-back loopiness only adds to it. In this case, the titular adjective is well chosen.