Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)

Notable Festivals: London (Opening Night)

Inducted into the Criterion Collection:  2014

Over ten years and five features into his career, there was a growing sense that director Wes Anderson’s preening, overly-meticulous aesthetic was growing stale.  Since the career high of 2001’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, his subsequent work was greeted with diminishing returns.  An aesthetic re-invention was needed, and curiously, Anderson did just that by actually doubling down on his signature style.  American Empirical’s sixth production, FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), takes Anderson’s best-known stylistic tropes and amplifies them to a cartoonish degree, but the difference here is that the film actually is a cartoon.  Sourced from the Roald Dahl book of the same name that Anderson had loved since childhood, FANTASTIC MR. FOX presented several new challenges for the director as not just his first work adapted from the mind of someone else, but also his first fully-animated effort and his first true work in the family genre.  He had limited experience with the art form, having incorporated animation legend Henry Selick’s stop-motion creations as part of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004).  As a direct result of that collaboration, Selick and Anderson ventured forth with the development of FANTASTIC MR. FOX shortly afterwards.  Selick eventually left to make CORALINE (2009), but Anderson soldiered forward with his stop-motion vision.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX takes place in an idyllic rendition of the English countryside, modeled after the grounds on which Roald Dahl’s estate sat.  Having given up a life of stealing chickens in favor of settling down and raising a family, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has suddenly found himself at a crossroads in life.  He’s now the same age that he was when his father died, and he’s suddenly sick and tired of living underground in a cave like all the other foxes.  Against the warning of everyone from his wife (Meryl Streep) to his attorney (Bill Murray), Fox purchases a tree on a hill and hollows out a home for himself and his kin.  From his towering tree, Fox has a clear vantage point of the surrounding rolling hills– including the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (and all the tempting livestock and food to be found there).  It isn’t long until Fox is tempted back into his old bandit ways, but what begins as “one last job” blows out of proportion and alerts the triad of malicious farmers to Fox’s schemes.  Intent on revenge, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean descond on Fox’s tree/home and try to ferret him out with bullets and digging machines.  Fox and his family dig deeper underground to escape, but the farmers only escalate their pursuit, managing to displace the entire animal community in the process.  Fox and friends take refuge in an expansive network of underground tunnels and caves, but the looming threat of total annihilation seems inevitable.  Realizing his culpability in this mess, Fox takes it upon himself to recruit the particular strengths of his varied animal friends and eliminate the threat of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean once and for all.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX finds many members of Anderson’s core group of performers making an appearance, but the film really belongs to George Clooney in the titular role. Let’s be honest– the role of a sly, debonair fox presents no real challenge to Clooney from an acting standpoint, but it’s this very same comfort that makes his casting so ideal and his performance so endlessly charismatic.  This sense of pitch-perfect casting extends to Meryl Streep’s performance as his wife, the quietly resilient Mrs. Fox.  Clooney and Streep’s involvement represents a new apex in Anderson’s caliber of collaborators, having ascended to the rarefied air of the Hollywood’s prestigious A-list.  Of course, all this talk of Hollywood royalty is not to discount the contributions of Anderson’s supporting cast, the grand majority of which is made up of his close friends and creative partners.  Bill Murray does the impossible in stealing the show out from under Clooney as Badger, Fox’s brusque and combative attorney.  Anderson’s RUSHMORE (1998) and THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007) star Jason Schwartzman brilliantly depicts the frustrated awkwardness of Fox’s cub, Ash.  THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU’s Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe appear as the heavies Franklin Bean and Rat, respectively: one’s a relentlessly vindictive cider farmer while the other is a West Side Story-style greaser trapped in the body of a backwater rat.  Anderson’s frequent collaborator Owen Wilson briefly pops up to explain the intricacies of whack-bat as Coach Skip.  Wallace Wolodarsky, who played a personal assistant plagued by alopecia in THE DARJEELING LIMITED, plays Fox’s partner-in-crime, Kylie.  Kylie is an anxious possum who’s loopy physicality recalls that of the actor Kumar Pallana, who a,so routinely appeared in Anderson’s previous works.  Still other Anderson alumni like Adrien Brody and Brian Cox show up in near-unrecognizable voice cameos, while Anderson himself makes his first appearance in his own films as a weasel who specializes in real estate.  The result is a highly eclectic and diverse cast that breathes wonderful life into Dahl’s literary creations while staying true to Anderson’s signature character archetypes and behaviors.

Anderson’s use of old-school filmmaking techniques have helped to make his name as an auteur, and FANTASTIC MR. FOXbrilliantly applies his particular brand of handcrafted artistry to a genre overstuffed with flashy computer-generated imagery.  Whereas the increasingly-miniaturist “proscenium” aesthetic Anderson had been pursuing with previous works was met with derision, the natural endpoint of said pursuit (the literal creation of actual dioramas) in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, was widely (and ironically) embraced.  The handmade, miniaturized feel of the stop-motion puppets is imbued with a tangible sense of life by Animation Director Mark Gustafson and his team (who replaced Selick after his departure), and shot at twelve frames a second (rather than the standard 24) so as to call our attention to the animation techniques themselves.

But just as much as FANTASTIC MR. FOX is a celebration of obsolete filmmaking practices, so too is it a product of newer technology.  FANTASTIC MR. FOX was shot frame by frame using a Nikon DSLR camera, marking the first time (within the feature world at least) that Anderson has worked with digital.  Owing to the highly specific skill set required of animation filmmakers, Anderson has to forego collaborations with his usual crew in favor of a creative partnership with craftsmen like Director of Photography Tristan Oliver and Production Designer Nelson Lowry.  Indeed, the only major technical collaborator to return is THE DARJEELING LIMITED’s editor Andrew Weisblum, but even then his chief purpose is to oversee the cut by main editors Ralph Foster and Stephen Perkins.  Despite these radical changes in collaborators and format, Anderson’s signature visual aesthetic manages to lose nothing in the translation.  FANTASTIC MR. FOX echoes THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS in its use of an autumnal color palette comprised of rich oranges, yellows, and browns.  The two-dimensional nature of animation is perfectly suited towards Anderson’s flat, symmetrical compositions and lateral camera movements.  FANTASTIC MR. FOX is Anderson’s first feature since BOTTLE ROCKET to not be presented in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, but even working within the narrower dimensions of the 1.85:1 Academy frame, he finds multiple opportunities to indulge in packing his compositions with as many members of his ensemble as he can. Lowry ably replicates the usual hallmarks of Anderson’s production design– a miniaturized, almost-fetishized depiction of objects, timeless set dressing and props (see the usage of an anachronistic portable radio), and an eccentric, yet highly personal, sense of sartorial style.  For instance, Mr. Fox’s iconic brown double-breasted corduroy suit is modeled after the one Anderson regularly wears in real life.

Anderson’s approach to the sound design and music of FANTASTIC MR. FOX is just as inspired as his visual ideas.  For starters, Anderson eschewed the conventional practice of obtaining clean voice recordings in highly-controlled studio booths.  Instead, he took his cast out to a friend’s rustic farm in the Connecticut countryside and captured their vocal performances out in the field.  As such, there is a richly organic quality to the acoustics that supersedes anything that a digital reverb processor can emulate.  The organic, natural approach extends to the film’s music, replacing the gilded electronic scores of the director’s previous films with a blend of live orchestral instruments.  Alexandre Desplat seems to have succeeded Mark Mothersbaugh’s long reign as Anderson’s composer of choice, beginning here in FANTASTIC MR. FOX with a pastoral conceit that incorporates banjos, jazz flutes, whistles, mandolins, a marching band, and even an English boy’s choir.  Desplat also receives a little help from folk artist Jarvis Cocker, who is also given the role of Petey to play within the actual film.  The score perfectly captures the rural agricultural setting and character of Anderson’s vision.

Anderson’s films usually contain an eclectic mix of classic pop and rock-and-roll needledrops, with each work tending to highlight a particular sub-genre within either category.  RUSHMORE was informed by the rebellious chords of the British Invasion.  THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS used Nico of the Velvet Underground to channel the Warhol-ian spirit of avant-garde art pop.  THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU strutted around in the glam rock styling of David Bowie.  THE DARJEELING LIMITED used the proto-punk English ballads of The Kinks to emotionally resonant effect.  WithFANTASTIC MR. FOX, Anderson zeroes in on the subgenre of surf rock, utilizing several cues from The Beach Boys in addition to Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance” and The Rolling Stones’ “Street-Fighting Man”.  Another notable inclusion is The Wellingtons’ “Ballad of Davy Crockett”, a jaunty little piece that evokes the boyish eagerness for adventure that’s present throughout all of Anderson’s films.

Despite the childlike innocent tone that marks his work, Anderson never feels like he’s patronizing his audience or insulting their intelligence.  Even in the context of a family film such as FANTASTIC MR. FOX, he readily acknowledges the unsavory realities and the sobering tragedies of real life.  This results in a distinct impression of melancholy that plagues every Anderson protagonist in various fashion.  Recurring themes like sibling rivalry and familial dysfunction are present in Ash’s envious squabbles with his athletically-gifted cousin Kristofferson, as well as Mr. Fox’s strained relationship with his wife and son.  The pitfalls of vanity is a major theme role in the film, with Mr. Fox’s preening lifestyle and high opinion of himself eventually leading to the placement of his family in dire jeopardy.  Works like RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU also hang important plot points upon their protagonist’s ability to perceive their own vanity and grow away from it.  FANTASTIC MR. FOX also deals with perhaps the gravest themes in all of Anderson’s filmography– genocide and displacement.  Boggis, Bunce, and Bean’s scorched-earth approach to dispatching Mr. Fox affects the entire animal community, turning them into refugees as they burrow deeper underground to escape the violent devastation of their homes.  It’s not often that a family film addresses the imminent terror of total annihilation, but Anderson’s considered tonal balance keeps things light and fun without being frivolous.

After the disappointing reception of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and THE DARJEELING LIMITEDFANTASTIC MR. FOX counted as a big win for Anderson right when he needed it.  While it underperformed in the conventionally-lucrative animation market, the film was praised by critics as a return to form and a creative re-energizing of Anderson’s sensibilities.  Come awards season, it was nominated for two Oscars in the Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score categories.  More importantly, perhaps, the film brought handmade, classic stop-motion techniques back into a conversation increasingly dominated by pixels and render farms.  By applying his singular aesthetic to the world of animation, Anderson had buoyed his flagging artistic profile and discovered a reinvigorated creativity that would fuel a second run of highly-acclaimed, legacy-defining work.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.

Credits:

Produced by: Allison Abbate, Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Scott Rudin

Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach

Director of Photography: Tristan Oliver

Production Designer: Nelson Lowry

Edited by: Ralph Foster, Stephen Perkins and Andrew Weisblum

Music by: Alexandre Desplat