In my elementary school days in the early ‘90s I vividly recall the books and authors that were pushed toward my peers and me by our teachers during the transition from picture books to novels: The Giver, Maniac Magee, Bunnicula (about a vampire bunny rabbit,) Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and my favorite of them all, British author Roald Dahl.
I think I read all of Dahl's major children's works - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Danny the Champion of the World, The Twits, George's Marvelous Medicine, The BFG, The Witches, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Note that I don't include Fantastic Mr. Fox amongst these more significant texts.
Ten-year-old David's opinion of the story of the book is all but identical to the view of 25-year-old David's viewing of the story of the film adaptation. It's hardly as fantastic a tale as the nine other imaginative roller coasters listed above.
But a sub-par narrative is hardly doomsday when it's transformed into a stop-motion-animated delight by one of Generation X's most important filmmakers, the director of "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Rushmore," Wes Anderson.
Mr. Fox (George Clooney) enjoys his work. He does what foxes do best: hunt. He and his wife Mrs. Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep) steal chickens. When one night's theft goes poorly Mrs. Fox forces her husband to choose a less dangerous line of work. So Mr. Fox ends up as a newspaper columnist. (How this occupation is any less dangerous than a chicken thief is a mystery to someone who's written columns for 10 years.)
The Foxes settle into a domestic life and even have a son - an oddball named Ash (Jason Schwartzman in another role maintaining his bias toward playing pathetic, annoying characters.) Soon the family is joined by Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson,) a cousin of the Foxes who will stay with them while his father recovers from pneumonia. The talented Kristofferson is soon a rival to the quirky Ash.
But none of this is particularly interesting to Mr. Fox, who soon finds himself drifting back toward his more exciting life: stealing chickens from the three evil farmers Bunce, Boggis, and Bean.
These midnight raids, accompanied with his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky) start off innocently enough but the three nasty farmers quickly grow tired of being made to look ridiculous. They arm themselves, round up their employees and then lay siege to the Fox residence. Soon they call in demolition and construction equipment to pursue the Foxes. Fairly quickly the entire animal community is caught up in the feud as Bunce, Boggis, and Bean destroy much of the forest.
And now it's time for this "Fantastic" Mr. Fox to set everything right and triumph against the seemingly insurmountable odds against him.
See? This is really pretty mundane stuff. And the characters do not add much to the proceedings either. Mr. Fox is hardly as "fantastic" as the title makes him out to be. He's almost more of a klutz the way he unleashes Boggis, Bunce, and Bean on the whole forest. The suave, badass Clooney that we're expecting from such films as the "Ocean's" series and "Michael Clayton" is nowhere to be found. Instead we get the eccentric idiot of "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "Burn After Reading." And, as already noted, Schwartzman is irritating.
Yet Streep is the one that shines. Her Mrs. Fox is sharp and dominating surrounded by these jokers.
Character and story are secondary, though, to the film's look and tone - which are ultimately the reasons to make the effort to see "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Anderson imbibes his picture with a sense of innocence and lightheartedness. It's not exactly a gripping or substantive narrative, it's just, well, pleasant. It's a relaxing film to take in.
The very retro-looking stop-motion animation drives this sensation the most. This isn't stop motion like "Coraline," perhaps the most advanced, accomplished stop motion film yet made. Instead "Fantastic Mr. Fox" recalls the style of 15 or 20 years ago. Not everything has to be "state of the art" in style. As with "The Box" which was reviewed a few weeks ago, by invoking an older sensibility a filmmaker also manages to bring along all the already-set feelings which go along with them. It's like performing a ritual invoking ghosts of the past.
So while "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is hardly breaking ground or setting itself up as the year's most-see animated film ("Up" gets that distinction) it's certainly a joyful bit of nostalgia.
Most of Dahl's books have already been made into great films. "The Witches," "Matilda," the first adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (forget the recent Johnny Depp embarrassment,) and "James and the Giant Peach" are all sheer delights.
So why not another book near and dear to the children of the ‘80s and ‘90s? With all the vampire books being made into movies lately surely the time has come for a live-action Bunnicula. Come on, a vampire bunny who drinks the "blood" of vegetables can't be any more ridiculous than the Cirqu du True Twilight silliness we've seen lately.
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