Fantastic Mr. Fox ***
It’s the school half term holiday once again, a time when movie studios cram as many family films into cinemas as possible, each trying to get as much money out of families as possible before the kids go back to school. Unusually, though, this year’s selection is a bit on the light side. With Disney/Pixar’s Up having already been released two weeks ago, only two new entries really seem to be targeting the half term audience, the first of which being Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film which could prove to be very interesting indeed. At first glance this is a film that seems like a perfect recipe for success. It’s based on the much beloved book of the same name by Roald Dahl, one of the most beloved children’s writers ever, it utilizes stop motion animation somewhat akin to Wallace & Gromit and it has what it is quite possibly one of the most impressive voice cast ensembles ever brought together for one film. However, despite all this, the film is a distinct wildcard, and the reason for this is in who is directing the film – Wes Anderson. Anderson, the director of films The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore has developed quite a reputation for his distinctive filmmaking style and unique brand of humour, but his films frequently receive mixed receptions from critics and moviegoers alike, with his style seemingly being quite an acquired taste, and one that this critic has certainly not developed a taste for. What’s more, his style of humour is one that doesn’t seem likely to be appreciated by younger viewers, something that may well prove to be this film’s undoing at the box office during this half term holiday. Regardless of box office success, though, what really matters is whether Fantastic Mr. Fox truly is fantastic or whether it is merely average.
Mr and Mrs Fox (voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep) live an idyllic home life with their son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and visiting young nephew Kristofferson (voiced by Eric Anderson). But after 12 fox years (that’s 2 human years), this bucolic existence proves to be too much for Mr Fox’s wild animal instincts. Soon he slips back into his old ways as a sneaky chicken thief – and in doing so, he endangers not only his beloved family, but the whole animal community. Trapped underground, and with not enough food to go around, the animals, including possum Kylie (voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky), Badger (voiced by Bill Murray), Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Weasel (voiced by Wes Anderson), Squirrel (voiced by Roman Coppola) and Rabbit (voiced by Mario Batali), must now band together to fight the evil farmers Boggis (voiced by Brian Cox), Bunce (voiced by Hugo Guinness) and Bean (voiced by Michael Gambon), as well as the villainous Rat (voiced by Willem Dafoe) – who are determined to catch the audacious, fantastic Mr Fox at any cost.
Not having read the Roald Dahl story upon which the film is based I am unable to comment on how Fantastic Mr. Fox works as an adaptation of that classic work. However, what I can say is that as a film it is pure Wes Anderson. Everything about this film – dialogue, humour, characters, on-screen text, voice actors, soundtrack and even the animation – is distinctly recognisable as his work. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend entirely on whether or not you actually like his work. Anderson’s style is undeniably distinctive and unique yet it is somewhat difficult to really identify who the target audience for this film really is. You would expect, given the inspiration, that this would be a family film but by and large it seems to be aimed at a much more mature audience. Most of the humour is probably too dry and quirky for children to appreciate (and likely only a minority of adult viewers will probably appreciate it either) and quite a bit of content is rather questionable for a family flick, such as frequent instances of swearing, albeit replaced with the word “cuss” in every case, as well as scenes of characters both smoking and drinking. Consequently, despite possibly seeming like a good choice for kids over the half term holiday I wouldn’t really recommend the film for younger viewers. And with Anderson’s style generally only appealing to a rather limited audience I suspect that not many older viewers will enjoy it all that much either. It’s a shame really as, from a technical standpoint at least, there are many things about the film that can be praised. For starters, in this day and age where computer animation dominates it is refreshing to see a film that utilizes a more low-tech form of animation and the stop motion animation (a technique that Anderson also used on The Life Aquatic) is top notch, giving the film a bold and distinctive look. Both characters and environments are excellently realised and the characters are brought to vivid life thanks to the impressive voice cast. While some will no doubt consider it almost sacrilegious that most of the characters are voiced by American actors (and this isn’t the only American touch in the film) rather than British ones, they all do such a good job that this can easily be overlooked, with the stars all doing an excellent job of creating mature, believable characters that could easily exist in real life (were they not animals). George Clooney injects pure cunning and charisma into his portrayal of Mr Fox, Meryl Streep is spot on intelligence and sophistication as Mrs Fox, Jason Schwartzman does a good job in the coming of age type role, Willem Dafoe is sly as Rat and trio of Brian Cox, Hugo Guinness and Michael Gambon are suitably mean as the villains. Everyone else is also of a high standard and there are also cameo performances by Wes Anderson regular Owen Wilson and Jarvis Cocker. Regardless of such qualities, however, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film that is likely only going to have limited appeal. Simply, it is too dry and slow for younger viewers and perhaps too kiddie for more mature moviegoers. Nonetheless, I guarantee that anyone who loved previous Wes Anderson movies will love this film just as much. It’s not bad, after all, just not to everyone’s taste.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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