Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

15 Sep

Having spectacularly missed the mark with the sombre, ponderous, meandering ‘The Darjeeling Limited’, arthouse darling Wes Anderson tackles Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic. Alas, this is not the way to celebrate the source text. Anderson approaches ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ in a manner befitting his oeuvre but detrimental to the effectiveness of the material. He essentially turns it into a stock Wes Anderson film – but with puppets.

For anyone unacquainted with what this involves, it can be summarized thus:
Snappy but vacuous dialogue that fancies itself as arch.
Frenetic editing that makes a virtue of drawing attention to itself.
Copious amounts of music – from twee folk to ‘Street Fighting Man’ in this case.

Anderson has excelled at making films about flawed intellectuals grappling with their inadequacies, but, on the evidence of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, it appears that this is the only thing he can do, regardless of its suitability to the project.

In his ‘re-imagining’, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a journalist with a gauche son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and a frosty wife (Meryl Streep). Against the advice of his attorney (Bill Murray), Mr. Fox moves his family into an upscale townhouse situated inside a tree. Despite assuring Mrs. Fox that he has moved on, Mr. Fox cannot fight his instincts and sets about raiding three nearby farms owned by the villainous, and inevitably British, Boggis, Bunce and Bean – with Michael Gambon essentially reprising his role in ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ as Bean. There is also a sub-plot about Ash and his more outgoing cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), wherein Ash is intimidated by the more precocious Kristofferson.

Can you feel the magic yet?

The end result is a film uncertain of its identity, outlined by the fact that it is crammed with references to films like ‘Rebel without a Cause’, The ‘Dollars’ Trilogy and ‘West Side Story’ while nominally being a film for children. Where the equally lacklustre ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ could at least lay claim to being a film ‘about childhood’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ appears to be a film about existential crisis and adolescent angst and is therefore unlikely to appeal to anyone beyond those with a fondness for Wes Anderson films.

It is, however, quite an achievement on Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s part to have taken these inherently lovable characters and turned them into such neurotic, self-absorbed Yuppies, blathering on about meditation, mobile signal and credit cards.

In the age of the CGI/3-D spectacle, animated films that use more traditional methods must possess enough warmth and charm to compensate for their lack of visual finesse; qualities which this film sorely lacks. The voice acting is stilted, the character models lifeless and in comparison to the yardstick for all things stop-motion – the films of Aardman – it is found wanting. ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ ironically feels less human and organic than something like ‘Toy Story’.

It is hugely disingenuous to claim that this is a screen adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel. Beyond the title and the names of the characters, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ bears little relation to the original. Anderson falls back on the archetypes that litter his previous work when he should be delivering something truly populist, sabotaging a film that should have been joyous in the process.

For adaptations that retain some of the magic and mischief of Roald Dahl’s work see:
‘The Witches’ (1990)
‘Matilda’ (1996)
‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996)

The perpetrators.

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