The colors burst onto the screen like a splendid, sunkissed autumn afternoon. From the first moments of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novella, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” glows with the majestic tones of fall, those infinitesimal delineations of oranges, yellows, reds and browns. The original illustrations in Dahl’s book by Donald Chaffin were straightforward and understated while the artwork was re-imagined by Quentin Blake as delicate pictures like faded watercolors. Anderson and director of photography Tristan Oliver – the cinematographer on the splendid stop-motion “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” – have draped the tale in a decidedly more rugged, vibrant and vivid palette. The animation of this hand-made country life is gorgeous, robust and deep. Cider glistens with honeycomb effervescence. The faces of the menagerie of anthropomorphic animals twinkle with perception. Whiskers sway softly in the wind. Visually, the film is a marvel.
The superb style binds a fast paced adventure. Mr. Fox is a smooth talking canine, stealing chickens, turkeys and cider from the region’s three most powerful farmers –Boggs, Bunce and Bean – even though the thefts feed his vanity, not mouths, and he has already promised his wife that he has ceased his filching ways. As voiced by the velvety-toned George Clooney, Mr. Fox is sly and resourceful, and as persuasive as a barker. He’s a tad too sure and a half-step ahead of danger. The farmers’ collective revenge exacted by terrible tractors and a cider flood uproots not only his family, but forces the entire animal population to become bunkered in an underground warren from which the fantastic one vows to free them.
In the midst of this upheaval, the animal characters are familiar Anderson personalities; a collection of complicated, delicate, hesitant and proud souls. Even the confident, titular fox is momentarily conflicted. (Included in a large ensemble of voices are Bill Murray as the agitated Badger, Mr. Fox’s attorney, and an almost unrecognizable Willem Dafoe as the scurrilous Rat.) Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach pepper the script with constantly clever and funny moments. In a comic highlight, Owen Wilson delivers, in his delicious, inimitable twang, a witty cameo as Coach Skip explaining the wild cricket-baseball hybrid known as Whack Bat. But the film is unafraid to be poignant as well. Anderson continues to explore his recurrent theme of dissection, the subterranean world here peeled back like the hull of the Belafonte in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” he burrows deeper still into lives rich and untidy. Jason Schwartzman brings a vulnerable and perturbed flavor to Ash, Mr. and Mrs. Fox’s insecure adolescent son who is intimidated by the presence of his no-effort, over-achieving cousin, Kristofferson. And the film contains perhaps the tenderest scene in an Anderson film yet when Fox and his long-suffering (even in fox years) wife engage in a moving and honest dialogue about their relationship on a thin platform in front of a shimmering waterfall. As they stand before the brilliant sheet of water, Mrs. Fox, voiced by Meryl Streep, releases a bitter truth which pricks his self-assurance and swipes at his swagger: “I love you too, but I shouldn’t have married you.”
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is an intrepid physical and emotional experience with a great escape by motorcycle ending, as you might expect from an Anderson flick, with a quirky dance right out of a Charlie Brown special. Like Spike Jonze a few months ago with “Where the Wild Things Are,” Anderson is a dynamic director who risked adapting a hallowed author’s children’s book and succeeded in making a remarkable film which retains his artistic sensibility while beautifully complimenting the original source