By Todd Gilchrist (reprint from 11/3/09 -- AFI Film Festival)
It's not hard to like any movie that uses the Beach Boys' music, but Wes Anderson makes it especially easy. As Hollywood's foremost purveyor of hipster drama, his pedigree as a reliable selector of appropriately wistful, poignant and all-around unforgettable songs is virtually unrivaled, but Fantastic Mr. Fox exceeds even the work of his earlier films, using "Heroes and Villains," and later, "I Get Around" as populist punctuation that manages to be both specifically relevant and substantively rousing.
As an animated opus, the film is by necessity his most controlled to date, a painstakingly-designed dollhouse where he no longer controls just the music, sets, and costumes, but the performers themselves. Ironically, however, it feels like his loosest as well - a gloriously unwieldy comedy of manners submerged in the minutiae of Anderson's madcap creativity. All of which makes Fantastic Mr. Fox a celebration both of its stop-motion medium and Anderson's aesthetic, while still managing to fully document the spectacular fun in original author Roald Dahl's daffy, distinctive imagination.
George Clooney is perfectly cast as the voice of Mr. Fox, a swaggering, besuited chicken hunter who retires with his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) after she becomes pregnant with their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Several fox-years later, Mr. Fox and family relocate to a massive tree that overlooks the farms of Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon), and he finds himself drawn back into the dangerous, exciting world that he discarded in the name of domesticity. But when an enraged Bean enlists Boggis and Bunce to hunt down the pint-size poacher by any means necessary, Mr. Fox begins to consider the true cost of his life of crime, reconnecting with his family and the other folks whose lives his mischief-making has upset – with predictably disastrous and hilarious results.
With only one viewing under my belt thus far, it's hard to do much more than chronicle the film's colorful, captivating sensory overload: Anderson creates animated creatures that recall the roughness of Rankin-Bass, but manage to have the poetry and poise of any of Henry Selick's contemporary creations. Thanks to costumes and sets that closely resemble the backdrops of the director's previous films, there's both a handmade quality and a polish to the look of the movie, but the action is remarkably fluid - even when it's stiff - reminding audiences of cartoon conventions even when one of the characters is tinkling out a tune by Art Tatum.
I think there's something undeniably childlike – or at the very least nostalgic – about Anderson's approach that enchants viewers, especially older ones, because it nails the general details of reactions, expressions and actions, but articulates them in such shaggy and rudimentary form that the end result feels fake and real at the same time. For example, Mr. Fox's feckless grin always seems to smack him across the face each time he discovers some new, unexpected development; other times, the characters' animalistic hunger rudely interrupts an otherwise civil meal at the dinner table; and the burrowing group of fugitives is always captured in a sort of earth cross-section wide shot where the little animals scramble through makeshift tunnels looking like a child's collection of action figures.
Meanwhile, the acting work is almost completely done in the casting itself: Clooney provides a variation of the bonehead know-it-alls he played for the Coen brothers as Mr. Fox; Streep exudes warm, maternal concern second only to Julie Kavner's Marge Simpson as Mrs. Fox; and Schwartzman revels in Ash's desperate, underappreciated achiever. Enlisting a few lesser-known regulars from Anderson's world – Wally Wolodarsky (writer-director of the cult film Cold Blooded) as Mr. Fox's thoughtful sidekick Kylie and Eric Dean Anderson as Kristofferson, Ash's cousin and sometime nemesis – the director doesn't merely assemble and all-star cast, he creates an all-Anderson one, maximizing the impact of each contributor's personality in a way that seems too seldom employed in animated films.
After The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic, Anderson threatened to be getting too serious even within his wistful, whimsical world, or maybe just lost that perfect balance between humor and drama that made his earlier films so effective, even if they were in their ways also powerful. Here, he sacrifices none of the human emotion even in characters that are animals, but primarily just seems to be having fun, which gives the film both its light touch and its deeper resonance. Which, to bring things full circle, is the central appeal of the Beach Boys music, a quality that itself is overlooked because of the band's sunny harmonies, or later, Wilson's intriguing eccentricities.
In fact, the only surprising thing is that Anderson didn't use Wilson's music sooner in his films, because Wes shares that same 60-40 split between pop fun and fervent pathos, just in reverse - bringing that light touch to something more meaningful, ultimately making Fantastic Mr. Fox live up to its name and then some.