Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox


#72 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade. This review contains spoilers.

Whose name should open this review - Roald Dahl's or Wes Anderson's? Roald Dahl, of course, wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1970. As embodied by Dahl's droll, devilishly nasty (though less than usual) prose and Quentin Blake's trademark sketchy, jagged illustrations, Mr. Fox is a cunning, boastful, and rakish chicken-thief who, trapped in his hole by farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, digs tunnels directly into their territory. As the farmers guard the hole, hoping to starve out their quarry, Mr. Fox pays a visit to Boggis' chicken coop, Bunce's store room, and Bean's cider cellar, assembling a great feast for all the animals who have been rooted out of their forest homes by the vengeful humans, forced underground but provided for by Fox's expert thieving. Dahl tells the story methodically but crisply, employing repetition as children's authors do but imbuing his narrative with a subversive sensibility, humorous character touches, and gruesome details ("[Bean's] earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing-gum and dead flies and stuff like that"). The story is ornamental - a simple narrative decorated with Dahl's trademark touches. Anderson, on the other hand, is known to fetishize the smallest details - something the film's animation allows him to do in greater detail than ever before. He accumulates ephemera at such a rapid clip, that it becomes the very substance of his work - more importantly, the whiffs and whisps of association clinging to his stylistic flourishes, filmic and pop cultural references, and imaginative set design and color coordination cohere into an overhanging mood of wistful romanticism and melancholy, on which his best films float and his weaker films coast. The character of Mr. Fox and the contours of the story he inhabits will always belong to Dahl. But the movie in question is so saturated with Anderson's vision that it could easily be called "Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox."

That's not to suggest that Fantastic Mr. Fox is entirely typical of Wes Anderson's oeuvre. First, there's the obvious fact that the film is created with lovingly handcrafted stop-motion animation. The nostalgia of the format (a 60s and 70s standby that fell by the wayside with the advent of CGI) certainly has the Anderson touch, as does the meticulousness required in its execution - Anderson may be the most controlled and controlling filmmaker since Stanley Kubrick. However, Anderson's earlier films were characterized by a rich and fascinating tension between the "live" element - the performances, the real locations - and the super-coordinated mise en scene. Such a tension is at the heart of cinema's appeal, the act of recording and the illusionist conceit being dual aims of filmmakers since the medium's earliest days. By imposing such a powerful presence on his work (any frame of an Anderson film is instantly identifiable) yet choosing to work with actors who bring their own unpredictable, idiosyncratic approach to bear (Bill Murray, Gene Hackman) Anderson highlighted a tendency already present in his screenplays. His stories often cast dreamers adrift in worlds which refused to function according to their wishes (though in all Anderson films, to ever-increasing degree, these worlds still seems to exist as a projection of the characters' fertile sensibilities). For obvious reasons, such a tension cannot be present in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Likewise, and perhaps accordingly, this is not really a sad film. Anderson's previous films had a strong undercurrent of melancholy, more touching and less forced in those collaborations with co-writer and actor Owen Wilson (Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums) than with those with Fox's co-writer Noah Baumbach (Life Acquatic) - into whose work a certain self-satisfaction tends to creep. At any rate, the source material does not exactly welcome moody introspection and while Anderson and Baumbach introduce a couple teenage foxes into the mix, their angst is really just one quirky element among many. The film does deal in loss and unease, manifesting themes that obsess Anderson (nostalgia for a recent past), Baumbach (marital tensions) or both (father-son relationships). However, these concerns are so deftly weaved into the fabric of the fast-paced narrative and blink-you'll-miss-it visual schema that they don't have the same effect as do the more pronounced examples of ennui in other Anderson works. Finally, Fantastic Mr. Fox indicates a welcome departure from Anderson's last couple films in its tighter, less wandering narration: though there are still plenty of asides, and the structure is not entirely traditional, Anderson remains somewhat bound by Dahl's story, and that's a good thing. As long as he's engaging with the forms of narrative filmmaking, he might as well ground his set pieces and delightful non sequiturs in a firm plot.

In many ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox remains indelibly Anderson's. It has all the needle drops one would expect, with the retro music-loving filmmaker finding room for everything from "The Ballad of Davy Crocket" to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" to the multiple Beach Boys tracks. Though in a narrower aspect ratio than his previous films (1.85:1), Anderson nonetheless utilizes horizontal space to great effect - or as Roger Ebert puts it, "the cameras are happier sliding back and forth than moving in and out" (oftentimes we feel as if we're looking into giant ant farms). Anderson also finds ways to playfully batter his proud protagonist's ego, a trademark gesture allowing the brilliant filmmaker to pay tribute to hubris-laden dreamers while also viewing them with a modicum of detached skepticism. In Dahl's book, Mr. Fox is arrogant to the end. Today, we like our children's stories with more constructive morals, and so this Mr. Fox (suave, smug charm perfectly embodied by George Clooney's vocal talents) learns the value of collaboration, employing the talents of his fellow animals in a final rescue plan. Importantly, he is also saddled with a tougher Mrs. Fox than Dahl provides (in the book, Fox's spouse waits at home while he saunters forth to snatch his prey; in the movie, she's initially his co-conspirator despite eventually asking him to settle down). Voiced by Meryl Streep, this Mrs. Fox is constantly berating her husband for his derring-do, and indeed his risk-taking is made to seem far more foolhardy here than Dahl allows. These are not just modern conventions taking hold of a 40-year-old tale; since Bottle Rocket, Anderson has undercut male confidence (even as he admires its blind faith in itself) and attempted to step outside the purely objectifying gaze of his heroes' romantic consciousness (even as he shares it to a certain extent).

Aside from its auteurist interest (which I've emphasized here given the uniqueness of an animated film, based on a beloved children's story, helmed by an incredibly unique and influential director) Fantastic Mr. Fox is an amusing comedy (with actors like Bill Murray and Michael Gambon providing both resonance and perfectly-suited presence), an entertainingly rapid-fire exercise in visual storytelling (one senses it will take several viewings to pick up even mininally on what's been offered), and a pictorial delight. The movie is a beauty to behold - lovingly crafted and imaginatively constructed to the point where we almost take its world for granted, occasionally forgetting the sheer achievement of what's onscreen, disappearing instead into its texture. Though filled with self-conscious gestures and witty references, the movie's breakneck speed, narrative conceits, and fully inhabited and detailed settings allow the viewer to slip into its universe with ease, postponing exploration (though one knows there's just so much to explore) for later viewings, going along for the ride. At first this can be somewhat disconcerting, both for those keyed into Anderson's milieu (and hence hyper-aware of the level the film is operating on) and for those expecting something more conventional (they may be initially confused and distracted by the sheer volume of information thrown at them). Sometimes one misses the simple clarity of older forms - and Anderson can seem to pile it on a bit thick; besides, some gestures (the winky yellow chapter-headings, for example) have become a bit old-hat. Yet one can't really complain; it's so rare to find a film which can both function as a straightforward story and a universe to explore - here Wes Anderson, with Roald Dahl's inspiration, has treated us to just such an experience. At the risk of seeming obvious (a sin in Wes' world) it's a truly fantastic gift.

Previous film: The World
Next film: Platform

Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark

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