02 December 2009

FANTASTIC IS AS FANTASTIC DOES

With Fantastic Mr. Fox, the notoriously fussy Wes Anderson has I think found the ideal medium for his stylistic preoccupations, not just for his sake but for his audience's. I know that I'm not the only person to love both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, only to find The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited to be awkward and problematic each in its way; they both, to me, represent a blossoming of the very precise and characteristic aesthetic choices of Anderson's earlier films into something stiff and claustrophobic, the point at which the childlike glee of creating very particular images curdles into authoritarian enforced whimsy (I should admit that I liked Darjeeling the first time; it took a second viewing to really sour me on its airlessly busy compositions, and it was only then that I really started to notice the desperately uncomfortable post-colonial air to it all).

Fantastic Mr. Fox undoes all of that. Oh, it is certainly an aggressively composed movie. It has a mise en scène so full of very clever, very quirky little elements that threaten to make it seem cluttered, except that every shot is preternaturally clean, that it could drive you made trying notice ever last detail. It has a soundtrack packed to the brim with not terrifically obscure but nonetheless unusual songs culled from the dark recesses of Anderson's mind. It tells a story about strained father-son relationships. And practically every damn shot is framed to the center and is tremendously flat. So there's really no mistaking for even a few seconds that you're looking at a Wes Anderson film, aside from the fact that it is stop-motion animation.

Even the animation is pretty Anderson-ey, though. The puppets, anthropomorphic animals decorated with uncomfortably realistic faces and real animal fur, move with a distinct stiffness, a jerky quality that recalls the cheap, TV stop-motion popular in the 1960s and into the 1970s. I do not want to put too much weight on this point, but I can think of a certain film director born in 1969 who is known for putting his childhood obsessions into all of his features, and who would have been exactly the right age to have the very warmest nostalgia for this kind of animation. It's hard not to assume that Anderson made this film at least in part because he is sad that this kind of film doesn't get made anymore, and he wanted to produce something for today's children like what he enjoyed as a child.

My point, anyway, is that Anderson's aesthetic works, for me anyway, much better in animation than it has become in live-action, simply because the same fussed-over detail that reads as claustrophobic in The Life Aquatic is just good craftsmanship here. And if I were going to be absolutely cruel to the man, I might make some reference to how Anderson's seeming inability to grapple with adult issues in an adult manner is not remotely as objectionable in a family movie as it is in an R-rated comedy.

At any rate, I thoroughly liked the film, and I was primed not to: the last two years have rather well acclimated me to the idea that Wes Anderson is, whatever his value as a filmmaker, a mostly terrible human being. Besides, there was a certain something in the trailers that never sat quite right with me, a certain otherworldliness to the visuals that was more unpleasant than anything else. Fortunately, being exposed to that style for the length of a full feature largely inoculates one against being put-off by it, and by the end of Fantastic Mr. Fox I was grooving on the style quite a lot. It is of course a very idiosyncratic style that, unlike most American animation, does not make any effort to create the illusion of realism: I do not know that I can remember any other stop-motion feature in which the small size of the models used as sets was so palpable and obvious. It's actually quite charming.

The film's story, adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, with healthy changes, from the Roald Dahl book, concerns a retired vulpine fowl thief named, of course, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), who lives in a tree just in sight of three huge farms full of birds and fruit ripe for the stealing. Alas, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) has long since won her husband's promise that he will go straight, and so Mr. Fox must fulfill his urges late at night. This quickly turns, as things will, into a pitched war between the three farmers and the local animal kingdom, with Fox leading a series of sting operations into the farmhouses. At the same time, his son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is feeling quite lonely and unloved in the face of his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director's brother), and makes plans of his own to show that he is just as good, despite being a small little thing.

I would not be inclined to call any of the familiar drama particularly moving, but it is at least sweet; and the narrative spine of the whole thing is playful as all get out. It is by a long shot the director's breeziest film; it is also his most imaginative, creating a whole panoramic world that, by virtue of not looking much at all like our own, is a most appealing and inviting thing. There's a distinct silliness to everything (owed to Dahl, ultimately) that keeps the movie from ever getting too serious, and its stellar voice cast, largely made up of people who have worked with Anderson before (Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson and Wally Wolodarsky - the last of these in a most delicate and pleasing vocal performance - all put in their time) are clearly glad to have fun with the arch dialogue, constantly funny without exactly drifting straight into comedy. It is, I think, the most altogether entertaining Wes Anderson film since his debut feature Bottle Rocket, also a caper movie and like Fantastic Mr. Fox, more concerned with character-driven good cheer than the working out of some variety of psychological maladjustment.

Better-looking animation is easier to find (Coraline is only nine months old); but this film makes up for its far less than state-of-the-art effects with some real hand-made personality, and the roughness of the visuals is a significant part of what makes the movie appealing; I begin to think it might be that the introduction of imperfection into Anderson's hermetic style is exactly what it took to get that style looking fresh and interesting again. Or maybe it's just the novelty of seeing animated foxes in immaculately centered compositions. Whatever the case, it's given new life to a filmmaker who'd been getting a bit too ossified in his style and tics. Just don't read anything about how the film was actually made, because if you're anything like me, it will make you want to seek Anderson out and punch him repeatedly in the face.

8/10

8 comments:

Stephen said...

In every trailer I saw for this, I hated the animation, but after about 5 or 10 minutes I was okay with it, and by the end I, like you, enjoyed it quite a bit.

I thought it was a bit too long, but that may have been because I'd had too much to drink and really had to go to the bathroom for the last half hour.

Cameron said...

http://articles.latimes.com/2009/oct/11/entertainment/ca-mrfox11

Cameron said...

oh blah, i posted that before i read the end of your review. people who don't want to know bad things about wes anderson, don't click on that link.

Zev Valancy said...

Tim, have you read the book? Do you feel that Dahl's spirit translated to the screen? Gleefully grotesque seems a far cry from fussed over to me. Or is it worthwhile on its own merits, if you ignore that it's based on one of Dahl's novels?

And the article did indeed make me want to punch him in the face, how did you know?

Tim said...

Like Jonze & Egger's Where the Wild Things Are, I think its much better appreciated as its own thing, without trying to relate it back to the book - which I haven't read in many years, but I used to like it (it was never one of my favorite Dahl books).

The difference being, of course, that I kind of disliked WtWTA.

GeoX said...

FYI, I just noticed that you forgot to add Where the Wild Things Are to the review list.

Tim said...

What a bizarre oversight. Added it, thanks.

JD said...

Man, I had the same issues too: -Fear of an overdose of quirk given the director and the idiom he was working in. The quirk overload really only seeped in at the end, which seemed a little disjointed, but the rest of the movie was so damn great that I'll give it a pass.

-The animation gave me the creeps. And then I warmed up to the style and by the end I wanted more of it.

It might be odd to compliment, but I enjoyed the little hints of continuity in the animation, too--for example, the scratch on Mr. Fox's face remains visible for the first while after it, and it later leaves a scar on his face. Or, when Ash's mouth is stained by juice, it remains stained from shot to shot. Maybe it's a cliche, but it brings them alive--they're not just cartoons that never get hurt or dirty for more than one scene.

It's a breath of fresh air, too, to watch a so-called family movie where "family" doesn't mean "farts and slapstick for the kids, pop-culture riffs and innuendo for the parents".